Though the situation in the Ukraine has been out of front-page headlines for the past weeks, the struggle between the government in Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists in the east has been ongoing. That conflict surged back into the public consciousness with reports that a Malaysian passenger airplane was shot down over Ukraine on Thursday, leaving hundreds feared dead and blame already being traded between Russia and Ukraine over just who is at fault for the downing of the Boeing 777 jet.
Mayalsian Airlines on Thursday morning confirmed that it had lost contact with MH17 flying out from Amsterdam on route to Kuala Lampur. Its last known position — and that of its 280 passengers and 15 crew — was over Ukrainian airspace, specifically the eastern territory that has been resisting the control of the central government. Ukraine’s military in recent weeks has shown a number of successes against the rebels there, shrinking the territory that they control down to portions of two main enclaves: Donetsk and Luhansk. The wreckage found on Thursday was discovered near Grabovo, a city in the area that separatists have declared as the Donestk People’s Republic.
However, the rebels have not been ceding territory quietly. There have been in the last month a number of incidents where aircraft were shot down, but until now they’ve all been military in nature. In June, separatists shot down a Ilyushin-76 transport plane landing in Luhansk, killing all 49 on-board. On Monday, Kyiv said that an An-25 transport ship was shot down in a rocket attack launched from across the border in Russia. And earlier on Thursday, Ukraine accused Russia of deploying a military jet into Ukrainian airspace last night to down an Su-25 fighter jet.
The alleged rocket launch on Monday, which the U.S. corroborated on Thursday, would be the first time an attack originated on the Russian side of the border. But for months now, Russia has been sending military hardware to support the rebels. Almost since the conflict began in the aftermath of the massive protests that led to former president Viktor Yanukovych stepping down, Moscow has been accused of not just arming and supplying the rebels, but sending Russian forces to take part in operations. In June, the State Department called out Russia for sending tanks and other heavy weaponry, such as the BM-21 rocket launcher system, into Ukraine. “Russia will claim these tanks were taken from Ukrainian forces, but no Ukrainian tank units have been operating in that area,” the State Department said then. “We are confident that these tanks came from Russia.”
The separatists have also shown some successes of their own in recent weeks, even while being hammered on the battlefield. A Voice of Russia article shows that the so-called “self-defense forces” of the Donetsk People’s Republic had seized a Ukrainian anti-air military instillation, according to Russian wire service RIA Novosti. “The forces of Donetsk People’s Republic assumed control of A-1402 military base,” the militia’s representative said, with Voice of Russia adding that the facility was “equipped with Buk mobile surface-to-air missile systems.” Those very systems — which are much more powerful that any shoulder-launched or other man-portable system — are the ones that the Ukrainain Interior Ministry has claimed were used to down the Malaysian flight. But Donestsk rebel leader Aleksandr Borodai insist that they do not possess weapons that could shoot down a plane flying at 10 km as the Malaysian flight was.
And according to a screenshot being passed around Twitter, rebel leader Igor Strelkov — who many suspect to be a member of the GRU, Russia’s external intelligence service — may have taken credit for shooting down the plane, thinking it was Ukrainian. That theory is being backed by several prominent experts on the region, including Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. “Russian GRU officer Strelkov admitting that he ordered the missile strike against the Malaysian jet,” McFaul tweet out from his account.
As the Ukrainian offensive has been taking place, diplomatic efforts to bring the months-long conflict to a close have shown fewer tangible outcomes. “While Russia says it seeks peace, its actions do not match its rhetoric,” the State Department said on Monday. “We have no evidence that Russia’s support for the separatists has ceased. In fact, we assess that Russia continues to provide them with heavy weapons, other military equipment and financing, and continues to allow militants to enter Ukraine freely.” The same day, NATO confirmed that 10,000 Russian troops had marshaled in border areas, ten times as many as a month ago.
All of this lead to the Obama administration on Wednesday evening to announce that it was upping the sanctions imposed on Russia. The fourth round levied since Russia first claimed control of the Crimean peninsula in March, these new sanctions stop just short of the sector-wide embargoes that the White House has previously threatened. They do, however, strike out at some of Russia’s largest energy and banking entities, including Gazprombank and Rosneft, the latter of which recently declared itself the largest oil-production company in the world. The new sanctions also targeted several prominent Russians and Ukrainian separatists. A senior administration official told reporters that “what we have seen time and again from Russia is a refusal to follow through on necessary commitments and conditions for de-escalation,” adding that the new sanctions were coordinated with European leaders.
While details about the exact nature of the crash remain murky, it appears that Ukraine has already made its mind up about the nature of the matter. “This is not an incident, not a disaster, and terrorist act,” Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said via his spokesman.