Friday 15 December 2017

Russians know everything - even missile serial number

The hours drift into days following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine. Yet there is no difficulty in identifying those responsible for this outrage. 

Russian military intelligence (GRU) operatives and technicians are swarming over eastern Ukraine and probably much of the rest of the country, monitoring in real time what is happening. Some are Russian troops operating illegally in Ukraine. Others are Ukrainians (or motley mercenaries from Serbia and elsewhere) on the GRU payroll.

The cause of the attack on the plane will have been known immediately to the Russian side. Missiles capable of hitting aircraft at that altitude cannot be fired without complex codes and technical support. 

The Russians know everything about the attack, down to the serial number of the missile and the names and breakfast rations of the people who ordered the attack. The Russians also know exactly what links there are (if any) between the people who fired the missile and their own GRU command structures.

The Americans will know a lot of this, too. We may not like global IT surveillance, but it resolves situations like this.

Washington is doubtless poring through myriad satellite images and thousands of conversations in Russian military slang to establish in minute detail what happened when the missile was fired and who ordered it. Likewise, the Ukrainians know plenty - they do not have the GRU's resources, but they are highly motivated to follow what the "rebels" and "separatists" are doing.

The issue, in short, is not any doubt about what actually happened. It is that the Russians - who know the most about it - are refusing to hand over to the world everything they know. Nor are they throwing their weight behind a rapid international effort to help the victims' families by sealing and investigating the crash area in a normal way.

Instead of a principled, helpful and sensitive response from Moscow, we see a macabre spectacle of diplomatic bluster and evasion while the crash site is despoiled and manipulated.

Murky alterations to the Wikipedia MH17 site are traced to Russian official buildings. Bodies are piled in unguarded railway refrigerator wagons. International officials are threatened at gunpoint by belligerent fanatics loyal to Moscow.

Moscow faces the indignation of a wide range of countries for its handling of this crisis, above all for not using all its influence to push the rebels out of the way so that normal international procedures can take place.

This vile policy, on the part of permanent member of the UN Security Council, creates dilemmas for the rest of us - not least because Moscow's behaviour and tone go way beyond anything normal or honourable, as understood under the international rules for such incidents that Russia itself helped to draft.

The diplomatic problem is bad, and getting worse. What if it is established beyond any doubt that officers under Moscow's command did have a hand in the murder of all those passengers?

No one wants to say. But we can be sure that if GRU operatives are implicated, under Putin's leadership Moscow will do whatever it takes to deny any responsibility. If victims and their families are denied all human decency while feverish efforts are made to hide evidence of the crime, too bad.

The hardest challenge in diplomacy? Dealing with ruthless leaders who enjoy showing defiance based on a policy of "the worse, the better".


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