A year after MH17, is Kremlin’s choice finally made?

Almost a year ago, I wrote an analysis of the plausible consequences of the denouement of the MH17 tragedy on domestic Russian politics, as well as on Russian’s ongoing intervention in Ukraine. In a nutshell, I posited that as soon as irrefutable evidence gets published – by a hard-to-discredit international body – that MH17 was shot down by (pro-)Russian militants, the Kremlin would have no serviceable move but to disown DNR/LNR in suprised disgust’, and begin a process of rebuilding of relations with the rest of the world.

Where I got it wrong, so far, was the time it would take for a “hard-to-discredit” body to publish its findings. The joint investigation team is still working on its report and plans to make it public after the summer of 2015.

However, pending that report, Russia is clearly in the know about what the current state of findings is, as its experts are also part of the team –  and privy to the JIT’s body of evidence. A diplomat close to the JIT work told me recently that the Russian team members, when confronted with the irrefutable proof of Russia’s origin and steering of the BUK missile, just shrug and smile, as in “come on, what do you want us to say”…

The recent Russian agitprop maneuvering on the topic corroborates the theory that (a) Russia knows the evidence is irrefutable and about to become very public, and (b) Kremlin has decided to cut the losses and admit to the non-Kiev cause of the tragedy, but (c) by assigning all blame to the “local rebels” of DNR/LNR.

The arguments supporting this thesis converge on the recent choice of preferred “source” theory (among the several, thus far mutually exclusive theories – each of which had a place-holder role, allowing the Kremlin to decide whom to blame based on what could be plausibly denied in the long run).

An early placeholder was the Ukrainian SU-25 theory, a ridiculously metaphysical legend supported by physically implausible claims and hearsay.

A second placeholder was the theory of an actual BUK missile hit, which – however – was believed to have been launched from what Russia “believes” was Ukrainian controlled territory, as of July 17th 2014. This placeholder was made public in the early days following the tragedy (at which time, no doubt, Russia had full information on the actual source of the attack). Said location was Zaroshenskoe, which – with no substantiation – Russia has claimed for nearly a year was under Ukrainian control at the time of the disaster.

In the last 2 months, the Russian public domain has been sprinkled with additional “argumentation” in favor of the Zaroshenskoe origin theory, including 2 (suspiciously similar) expert reports – one by the Russian Engineer’s Union and another by the company manufacturing BUK’s today (which claims it has nothing to do with the model used to down Boeing MH17, yet somehow boasts to be the only expert on that missile). Both reports, using an arsenal of physical, quasi-physical and metaphysical reasoning, “prove” that the origin of the missile was Zaroshenskoe. Thus, the two reports support the early MoD theory, announced only a day after July 17th.   None of the three proponents of this theory, however, provide even a shred of evidence that Zaroshenskoe was under VSU (Ukrainian-government) control at the time of the hit.

And this is where I think the most significant part of the story is. Zaroshenskoe, as of the day of the tragedy, was neither (fully) within DNR/LNR, nor within Ukrainian control. I spoke to two residents of the village and one of a neighboring village, who all told me that the borderline between the warring groups was passing nearly precisely through the village, thus it was “neither here nor there”.

Novaya Gazeta did their own investigation of the “Zaroshenskoe” theory, leading to the same conclusions about its no-man’s land status, but going further – proving – via multiple witness testimony – that the BUKs could not have been shot from there. In a nutshell: no one there heard any bangs on the day of the downing, and locals attempts to locate any traces of a BUKs in the vicinty (following the MoD claim the day after) lead to nothing.

Today, Novaya Gazeta published another expert opinion: this time a  Russian cartographer was able to “geo-locate” Zaroshenskoe as being “within 6 to 7 km within DNR’s control territory”. An interesting conclusion, insofar as  it somewhat contradicts the no-man’s land conviction of local residents.

I like Novaya Gazeta. It is one of the very few sources of quality investigative reporting in Russia (others being, to a less brave extent, MK,  RBC, Rosbalt and, in a perverted and decelerating way, Gazprom-owned Echo of Moscow). Yet, as I have written before, Novaya has sometimes been used, with or without its knowledge, as a dumping ground for what the Kremlin wants to make public – but does not want to discredit it, by leaking it via its official media channels.

Thus, I have to take the sudden “discovery” that Zaroshenskoe was under DNR control (despite what locals told me on the record) with a grain of salt. Maybe that was indeed the case, and the residents were simply confused, or reluctant to share the truth for fear of reprisals by the pro-Russian militias.  Or maybe the cartographer was honestly confused.

Or maybe, this is all part of Kremlin’s prep work for keeping all options open. In economics, option theory posits that one should never commit to a choice until one is forced to choose. No-man’s land is the perfect choice for someone seeking optionality.

Suggesting a “6 to 7 km” shift in the direction of DNR (and that the Ukrainian army would have had to cross a blown-off bridge to even get there in the first place) may imply that the forced choice has already been made.

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