Pro-Russia separatists who are believed to have used the “Buk” antiaircraft missile system to shoot down a Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine probably needed Russian assistance to operate it, senior U.S. officials said Friday.
The Russian-designed missile system, also known as an SA-11, “is a sophisticated piece of technology, and it strains credulity to think that it could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance,“ Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.
Whether Russian military personnel were involved, either in training Ukrainian militants or actually operating the system, is emerging as a key question for U.S. intelligence agencies and for crash investigators, the officials said. Russia has blamed the Ukrainian government for the crash .
The Buk is a medium-range surface-to-air missile system mounted on mobile launchers that was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and is still produced by Russian arms producers, including one sanctioned by the Obama administration the day before the airliner was shot down.
It can reportedly hit targets as high as 72,000 feet, well above the 33,000 feet at which the Malaysian jet was flying when it was shot down.
The U.S. has stopped short of asserting publicly that there is solid evidence directly implicating Russia in the attack, which killed 298 passengers and crew members, including an Dutch-American dual citizen. Officials have also been careful to note that the finding that separatists fired the missile is only a preliminary conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies.
But American officials, including Gen. Philip Breedlove, the top commander at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have warned publicly even before Thursday’s tragedy that Russia was providing the radar-guided, mobile antiaircraft system to separatists. The U.S. has also said that Russia is providing the militants with military advisors, some of whom are in Ukraine.
“Because of the technical complexity of the SA-11, it is unlikely that the separatists could effectively operate the system without assistance from knowledgeable personnel,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council during an emergency session Friday on the crash. “Thus we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel in operating the systems.”
Power noted that Ukraine’s military, which has been battling separatists near the Russian border, also has the SA-11 in its arsenal. But she said that the U.S. had no information indicating they had moved the missile-carrying vehicles to Eastern Ukraine, where the missile that struck the airliner was fired.
She called for investigators to be granted immediate, full and unfettered access to the crash site, which is in a militant-held area near Ukraine’s border with Russia.
“Separatists were spotted hours before the incident with an SA-11 system at a location close to the site where the plane came down,” Power said.
Kirby said that “some separatists have received some training in these vehicle-borne systems. There’s no question about that.”