Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said Friday that it “strains credulity” to think pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine who are believed to have shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 didn’t have at least some help from Moscow.
“It strains credulity to think that they could do this without some measure of Russian support and assistance,” Kirby said, in a briefing at the Pentagon.
Just 25 miles from Donetsk in pro-Russian held territory, the flight carrying 298 passengers and crew was shot down on Thursday, killing everyone on board. The U.S. believes it was likely brought down by a SA-11 missile fired from a Buk surface-to-air missile system.
While he said more details would emerge in a deep investigation of the incident, Kirby noted the SA-11 is a “sophisticated piece of technology” that would likely require technical assistance from Russia.
In June, the U.S. State Department accused Russia of sending tanks and other heavy military equipment to the separatists in the east, including T-64 tanks and several rocket launchers.
Late that same month, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove said, “What we see in training on the east side of the border is big equipment, tanks, APCs, anti-aircraft capability, and now we see those capabilities being used on the west side of the border,” while the NATO commander added the U.S. had not observed training on man-portable anti-aircraft weapons, but had seen “vehicle-borne capability being trained.”
Kirby, in his Friday briefing, continued:
“There have been Russian, I mean there have been incursions across the border by Russian aircraft. So, I mean we don’t have any reason to suspect that they have not provided some measure of support on the other side of that border. These paramilitary forces that we do not talk about as much anymore certainly didn’t act or behave or organise or resource like some ragtag militia. So nobody is suggesting that Russian military advice and assistance hasn’t somehow crossed that border. It’s just unclear exactly how much and when and who.”
Shortly after the airliner had crashed, pro-Russian militants were reportedly caught on leaked phone calls, apparently discussing the shooting before eventually realising they had shot down a civilian aircraft instead of a military target.
In one of the leaked calls, one militant asks, “What was it doing in Ukraine’s territory?” Another, identified as Nikolay Kozitsin, responds, “That means they were carrying spies. F— them, got it? … They shouldn’t be f—ing flying. There is a war going on.”
On Thursday, an Associated Press reporter spotted seven rebel-owned tanks parked at a gas station in the town of Snizhne, where he also saw a Buk missile system.
Kirby also noted the continuous buildup of regular Russian army troops on the other side of the border, which he said now stands between 10,000 and 12,000 soldiers.
While much of the world is pointing the finger at Moscow’s support for the insurgency in the east, Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested the Ukrainian government is to blame.
This post was updated at 9:45 p.m. PDT
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