The downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine renewed the world’s attention Friday to the conflict that’s been raging there for months. But despite near unanimous assertions that a missile had blasted the plane from the sky, definitive blame for what President Barack Obama labeled a “global tragedy” seemed likely to be months away.
Obama pledged a full investigation and said evidence indicated the plane was downed by a surface-to-air missile fired from a region controlled by Russia-backed separatists. The U.S. representative at the United Nations, Ambassador Samantha Power, went further, hinting that Russian technicians might even have played a role in the launch.
But the probe into the crash is likely to take a year or more, experts said, and it faces many challenges. And until its conclusions are known, it’s unlikely that anyone will be held accountable for the deaths of the 298 people on board, including one American and citizens of at least nine other nations.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the FBI plan to send investigators to Ukraine, but the obstacles are legion: Finding pieces of the missile could prove difficult, the plane’s wreckage may be hard to access, and the location of the black box recorder, often crucial to learning about crashes, was unclear. Some experts questioned whether once located it would provide any useful information.
Ukrainian officials have said they believe Russian separatists near the town of Torez used a Soviet-era Buk mobile anti-aircraft missile system to down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew along a well-known commercial air corridor over eastern Ukraine on its way from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Obama echoed that conclusion, and he criticized Russia Friday for aiding the separatists, but he stopped just short of assessing blame.
“There are only certain types of anti-aircraft missiles that can reach up 30,000 feet and shoot down a passenger jet. We have increasing confidence that it came from areas controlled by the separatists,” Obama said.
While saying the Pentagon has no direct evidence that a Buk anti-aircraft system or an SA-11 missile crossed into eastern Ukraine from Russia, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, expressed extreme doubt that the separatists could have obtained such sophisticated weaponry or learned how to use it on their own.
“It strains credulity to think that they could do this without some measure of Russian support and assistance,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.
But proving it was an SA-11 might be difficult, said retired Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, who served as the head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency from 2008 until 2013. Very little of an SA-11 missile would have survived the explosion and the high-speed descent from 33,000 feet, the plane’s cruising altitude, he said.
Moreover, he said, the SA-11 uses a proximity fuse that triggers the warhead when it senses that the target is close.
“The missile almost self-destructs,” said O’Reilly, who is now a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy institute.
Recovering the aircraft’s black box also may not be a big help. A military aircraft would have the capability of recording information from a missile attack, but the black box on a civilian jet would only have monitored which systems failed in the few seconds after the warhead detonated.
“The only thing they’re going to hear on the black box is a boom,” said John Goglia, an aviation safety consultant and former member of the NTSB who was the first certified aircraft mechanic on the board.
“From a point of view of detecting what happened from the point of how the intercept occurred, it may be momentarily the last second or so of indicating what systems failed or how, and that’s about it,” O’Reilly said.
Asked where the black box might be, Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said, “I don’t know.”
An additional problem is access to the site. News reports from Ukraine described emergency workers, police officers and even off-duty coal miners spreading out across the sunflower fields and villages of eastern Ukraine, searching for the wreckage.
But reaching the sprawling crash site remained difficult and dangerous. The road into it from Donetsk, the largest city in the region, was marked by five rebel checkpoints Friday, with document checks at each.
The self-proclaimed prime minister of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, said 17 representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and four Ukrainian experts had traveled into rebel-controlled areas to begin an investigation. They were allowed to look at part of the crash site but were refused access to the area where the engines wound up.
Obama called for a cease-fire, and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed. Borodai said that was out of the question.
Obama insisted that Putin, who earlier this week said U.S.-Russia relations were nearing a “dead end,” could put an end to the violence.
“What we do know is that the violence that’s taking place there is facilitated in part _ in large part _ because of Russian support, and they have the ability to move those separatists in a different direction,” Obama said. “If Mr. Putin makes a decision that we are not going to allow heavy armaments and the flow of fighters into Ukraine across the Ukrainian-Russian border, then it will stop.”
Russia, Obama said, “has continued to violate Ukrainian sovereignty and to support violent separatists. It has also failed to use its influence to press the separatists to abide by a cease-fire. That’s why, together with our allies, we’ve imposed growing costs on Russia.”
The United States’ European allies were not that vivid but were nonetheless critical of Russia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “The Russian president and the Russian government have to contribute to a political solution of the situation.” But she also puzzled German commentators by saying she would begin her summer vacation in the mountains near Tyrol, Italy, as scheduled on Saturday. If the crisis worsened, she pledged, she would return to Berlin.
Malaysia Airlines released a new accounting of who had been aboard the flight by nationality. The Dutch bore the highest cost: 189 victims, followed by Malaysia, with 44, and Australia, with 27. There were also 12 Indonesians, nine Britons, four Belgians, four Germans and three Filipinos.
Canada, New Zealand and the United States each had one citizen aboard.
The White House identified the lone holder of U.S. citizenship as Quinn Lucas Schansman, a dual Dutch-American citizen, whose death the airline might also have counted among the Dutch. Malaysia Airlines said the citizenship of four victims still had not been determined.
At an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting Friday, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin repeated the Kremlin’s charge that the Ukrainian government was to blame for the tragedy, saying its aviation authority should have prohibited the Malaysia Airlines pilot from flying over the conflict zone.
“Why did the Ukrainian aviation dispatcher send a plane to an area of conflict?” Churkin asked, adding that international law provides “for the possibility for a timely closure by the state of an area that is dangerous for flights.” Churkin said that it was Kiev that had obstructed meaningful cease-fire negotiations.
Power, the U.S. ambassador, noted that the aircraft was cruising at 33,000 feet at a speed “typical for an airliner along an established flight corridor frequented by commercial traffic.” She noted that its transponder was transmitting a code that corresponded with its flight plan and flight data that “were publicly available on the Internet.”
Power said a Western journalist had spotted an SA-11 mobile anti-aircraft missile launcher _ part of the BUK series of air-defense weapons _ near the town of Snizhne in the area of the crash site just “hours before the incident.”
Power also noted that “separatists initially claimed responsibility for shooting down a military transport plane and posted videos that are now being connected to the Malaysia airlines crash” and “also boasted on social media about shooting down a plane.” They “later deleted these messages,” she said.
While the Ukrainian military has SA-11 anti-aircraft missile systems, the United States was not aware that any of its missiles were in the vicinity of the crash, Power said.
“More importantly, since the beginning of this crisis, Ukrainian air defenses have not fired a single missile, despite several alleged violations of their airspace by Russian aircraft,” she said.
Pro-Moscow separatists shot down two Ukrainian planes last month and claimed to have struck two others this week, she said.
Malaysia Airlines took pains to absolve itself of any legal liability it might face in the second major airline disaster this year involving one of its planes. It noted that Eurocontrol, which determines civil aircraft flight paths over Europe, had approved the flight plan and that the route over Ukrainian airspace is routinely used for Europe to Asia flights.
Another flight was on the same route at the time of the crash, Malaysia Airlines said.
Contributing to this story were James Rosen and Curtis Tate in Washington and Matt Schofield in Oslo, Norway.