German Spy Agency Contradicts U.S. Claim that Russia Gave Weapon System that Downed MH17

Germany’s foreign intelligence agency has concluded that pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysia Airline flight 17 using a BUK air defense missile system that the rebels stole from a Ukraine military base (Der Spiegel reports). This conclusion, if correct, would contradict statements by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year.

Appearing on the Sunday morning shows on July 20, 2014, Mr. Kerry stated in multiple television interviews that Russia was likely responsible due in part to intelligence information showing Russia had supplied the BUK air defense missile system that the rebels used to down the plane. How convincing was the intelligence supporting this claim? Kerry said on NBC’s Meet the Press, “There’s a build-up of extraordinary circumstantial evidence. I’m a former prosecutor. I’ve tried cases on circumstantial evidence; it’s powerful here.” He told CNN’s State of the Union, “It basically, it’s pretty clear that this is a system that was transferred from Russia in the hands of separatists.” He told CBS’s Face the Nation, there was an “enormous amount of evidence” to support this claim. He told ABC’s This Week, “there are an enormous array of facts that point at Russia’s support for and involvement in this effort.” His exchange on Fox News Sunday came close to making the same assertions.

In short, this may turn out to be another horribly embarrassing incident of the U.S. administration either relying on faulty intelligence or failing to represent accurately the findings of the U.S. intelligence community in an effort to rally domestic and international support against another nation.

On reflection, it is notable that unnamed senior U.S. intelligence officials, in a Tuesday press briefing following Kerry’s Sunday show appearances, may have been attempting to provide more qualified statements about the state of the evidence linking Russia to the missile that downed MH17.

Sadly there are many reasons to tie the Russians to the rebels and potentially hold Russia responsible—and Mr. Kerry’s added assertions, with a high level of confidence, that the missile system was supplied by Russia was unnecessary and may now become a significant distraction, if not worse.

What are the others ways in which Russia may be responsible? Russian agents may have operated the system that downed MH17 or trained rebels to operate the system; Russia may be directly supplying and training the rebels with the same type of systems in other cases giving the rebels the incentive and capacity to capture and use a Ukrainian BUK system, and Russia’s general sponsorship of the rebel forces and fostering the conflict arguably laid the conditions that led to the MH17 tragedy and many other acts of violence.

[Editor’s Note: For other Just Security coverage of the MH17 incident, see Alex Whiting, “How to Prosecute the Perpetrators of the Malaysian Jet Downing.”]

Why might initial assessments linking the MH17 weapon to Russia have been faulty? According to the German intelligence agency, Ukrainian photos of the incident had been manipulated.

Here’s an added twist: you may not have known that the German spy agency reached these conclusions if you just read the news headlines.

Major media outlets instead focused attention on another aspect of the German intelligence report—the determination that rebel forces (as opposed to Ukraine forces) shot down the plane. That conclusion, however, is not so shocking. The contradiction of Mr. Kerry’s statement about Russia is.

Some major news organizations have not covered the German intelligence agencies report at all.

Here is a sample of news headlines that reported on the Germany spy agency’s findings:

“German Intelligence Agency Blames Pro-Russian Rebels for Downing of Flight MH17” (Newsweek)
“Germans Blame Pro-Russian Separatists for Shooting Down MH17” (The Atlantic)
Germany blames pro-Russian rebels for MH17 passenger plane crash” (Reuters)

Here is a video of Secretary Kerry appearance on Meet the Press on July 20, 2014.

Look to the exchange beginning at 2:53 in this clip.

DAVID GREGORY:
Are you bottom lining here that Russia provided the weapon?
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY:
There’s a story today confirming that. But we have not, within the administration, made a determination. But it’s pretty clear, when, you know, there’s a build-up of extraordinary circumstantial evidence. You know, I’m a former prosecutor. I’ve tried cases on circumstantial evidence. It’s powerful here. But even more importantly, we picked up the imagery of this launch. We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing. And it was exactly at the time that this aircraft disappeared from the radar. We also know, from voice identification, that the separatists were bragging about shooting it down afterwards.
DAVID GREGORY:
Right.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY:
So there’s a stacking up of evidence here, which Russia needs to help account for. We are not drawing the final conclusion here. But there is a lot that points at the need for Russia to be responsible. And what President Obama believes and we, the international community, join in believing, everybody is convinced we must have unfettered access.
DAVID GREGORY:
And you–
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY:
And the lack of access, the lack of access, David, makes its own statement about culpability and responsibility.

 

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About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.