WASHINGTON – The United States is confident that the Malaysia Airlines plane that crashed in eastern Ukraine was downed by an SA-11 missile likely fired by pro-Russian separatists – most plausibly by mistake – but there still is no hard evidence tying the rebels or Russia to the disaster, senior U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday.
“Two things we don’t know is who exactly pulled the trigger: We don’t know a name, we don’t know a rank and we’re not even 100 percent sure of a nationality,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official. “We don’t even know why. The most plausible explanation is that it was a mistake.”
The officials spoke at a briefing for journalists approved by the Obama administration in an apparent bid to keep international heat on Russian President Vladimir Putin for backing the rebels fighting to break two self-proclaimed independent republics away from Ukraine. The briefing also was aimed at discrediting explanations for the crash – some bordering on the absurd – being disseminated by the Kremlin and Russian news media.
Russia “created the conditions” for the deaths of the 298 people flying on the Boeing 777 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur by training the rebels and providing them with tanks, rocket launchers and other weaponry, said the senior U.S. intelligence official.
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes appeared more categorical.
“We do think President Putin and the Russian government bears responsibility for the support they provided to these separatists, the arms they provided to these separatists, the training they provided as well and the general unstable environment in eastern Ukraine,” Rhodes told CNN in an interview.
The Kremlin has continued sending military hardware to the separatists since the July 17 crash, he said.
Russia stepped up the shipments after Ukrainian forces began recapturing territory from the rebels earlier this month, the U.S. intelligence officials said.
The briefing came as Ukrainian forces pressed their offensive against the separatists in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics. In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers agreed to expand sanctions to Putin’s inner circle and the Russian financial sector, but they delayed imposing them because of internal differences on the specifics.
The United States has no direct evidence, however, linking the separatists or Russia to the crash, said the first U.S. intelligence official. “We are five days into the investigation and we recognize that other information will become available,” he said.