Cross-posted from Consortium News
U.S. intelligence analysts are weighing the possibility that the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was a botched attempt by extremists in the Ukrainian government to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin whose aircraft was returning from South America the same day, according to a source briefed on the U.S. investigation.
If true, the direction of the investigation into the July 17 crash has veered dramatically from initial U.S. government allegations that eastern Ukrainian rebels, using a Russian-supplied anti-aircraft battery, were responsible for bringing down the plane, killing 298 people onboard.
But the U.S. analysts dismissed those original suspicions because they could find no evidence that such a missile battery had been supplied by the Russians or was in the possession of the rebels, prompting a shift in thinking toward a scenario in which Ukrainian hardliners working with elements of the air force may have tried to ambush Putin's plane but instead hit the Malaysian airliner, said the source speaking on condition of anonymity.
Putin flies in a plane with similar red, white and blue markings as the Malaysian airliner and was known to be on his way home after a six-day visit to South America. But his plane took a different route and landed safely in Moscow.
After the crash, as U.S. intelligence analysts pored over phone intercepts and other intelligence data, they began to suspect that the motive for the shoot-down was the desire among some Ukrainian extremists to eliminate Putin whom they had been privately vowing to kill -- words initially viewed as empty bluster but which were looked at differently in hindsight -- the source said.
If some Ukrainian authorities were hoping to ambush Putin's plane, they also would have had only a matter of minutes to detect the aircraft's presence and make a decision to fire, so it could be plausible that the attackers made a hasty decision to hit Putin's plane before they realized that they had made a tragic mistake.
After the crash, the Ukrainian government quickly assembled some pieces of information from "social media" to pin the blame on the eastern Ukrainian rebels and the Russian government for what would have been a reckless decision to supply such powerful weapons to a poorly trained force.
The rebels denied having a Buk anti-aircraft battery capable of reaching an aircraft flying at 33,000 feet and the Russians denied having supplied one, but those denials were brushed aside by the mainstream U.S. news media and were rejected as well by senior U.S. officials. Only three days after the crash, Secretary of State John Kerry made the rounds of five Sunday talk shows to embrace the Ukrainian government's assertions although the official investigation into the crash had just begun.
The following Tuesday senior U.S. intelligence officials briefed mainstream reporters from several news outlets offering qualified support to the claims by Kiev and Kerry, but some journalists noted the lack of any real evidence and the briefing's curious reliance on "social media" rather than aerial reconnaissance, phone intercepts or other official sources. The absence of this corroborating evidence suggested that the case against the rebels and Russia was weaker than the Obama administration was letting on.
Yet, because of the high-level endorsements of Russia's presumed guilt, the U.S. intelligence analysts are moving cautiously in developing their alternative scenario, said the source, who added that another line of inquiry still being pursued is that the Ukrainian military brought down the passenger plane simply to create a provocation that could be turned against the rebels and Russia.
But the assassination motive would seem to make more sense given the intense hatred expressed by Ukrainian leaders toward Putin and how Ukrainian extremists would view the murder of Putin as a giant feather in their cap.
Still, the idea of assassinating the Russian president by shooting down his plane -- even if the attack were carried out by hardliners without the approval of top officials -- could have provoked a major international crisis. Nuclear-armed Russia would have almost surely retaliated against Ukraine, possibly with a full-scale invasion which could have escalated into a dangerous military confrontation with the United States.
This possibility of a cascading crisis beyond the control of rational policymakers has always been a risk since the U.S.-backed overthrow of elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22, a putsch spearheaded by neo-Nazi militias though also supported by more moderate political figures. The U.S. State Department quickly embraced the coup regime as "legitimate," but ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, which had been Yanukovych's political base, resisted the new order.
Crimea, another stronghold of ethnic Russians, voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, a move endorsed by Putin and backed by Russian troops who were stationed in Crimea, the site of the Russian naval base at Sebastopol. The annexation of Crimea was heartily denounced by President Barack Obama and U.S. allies in Europe, who began applying sanctions on Russia.