MH17: 2 years after

Last October I wrote an analysis of the Dutch Safety Board’s report for a think-tank. As it was not published in open access then, I thought I would now publish a portion of it headlined “Gaps between the lines.”

Given the US’s recent statement that their own data confirms DSB’s findings relating to the origin of the BUK’s trajectory, I thought this section may be of interest (some parts are obviously outdated).

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DSB Report: Gaps Between the Lines

Several elements in the DSB report suggest that the Dutch investigators, and their international partner services, may know more about the specifics of the missile launch circumstances than is disclosed in the report. One such element is the reference to classified information that was provided to the DSB team to inspect but without permission to cite it. Such information, the report said, was provided by the Dutch military intelligence and general intelligence services, and included information gathered by these two agencies and information from partner security services. This information “confirmed the report’s findings about the causes of the crash”, but due to national security considerations, could not be included in the report.

From a sub-report on the knowledge of the Dutch security services, included in a different section of the report, however, it becomes evident that the Dutch services had no substantial classified information or data-gathering operations in the area of the crash. Thus it is most likely that the information referenced was provided by foreign services. The only realistic source is the United States satellite surveillance operation in the area. The United States have not kept it secret that they have access to proprietary satellite surveillance in the area, as evidenced by a series of released satellite imagery purporting to show Russian GRAD rocket launches into Ukraine[1]. Russia has also tactically accused the US is not disclosing satellite data on the MH17 (although it has effectively not disclosed its satellite data, either).

In all likelihood, it was namely US satellite imagery that was presented to the DSB management, and gave them sufficient comfort to proceed with the definitive conclusion about the missile type and launch location. Shortly after July 17th 2014, the US Embassy in Kiev released a stylized image of a trajectory of the suspected BUK, originating from the area of Snizhne, precisely within the polygon later modelled by DSB.

The question arises why the US – and its allies – are withholding such vital data they are in possession of. There are three plausible hypothesis.

First, the data may in fact have already been submitted to the JIT, but in the interest of the criminal investigation, it will not be disclosed until the completion of that line of inquiry. Indeed, withholding similar “smoking gun” data is not unusual in criminal investigations, especially in ones of such cross-border complexity and possibly involving state-sponsored actors.

A second hypothesis is that the US does not wish to release such data into the public domain, for fear of exposing its data gathering methods to its enemies. This may be linked, for example, to the potential use of LEO (low-earth orbit) reconnaissance satellites above or adjacent to Russian territory.

A third hypothesis may be that the US and its allies are tactically deferring disclosure of such incriminating data, to allow Russia one last exit from the highway to a rogue state. If Russia cooperates with the West, and concedes to partial acceptance of blame, it may be spared the full public disclosure and its political consequences. Such cooperation may be embodied by delegation of guilt to pro-Russian separatists and to certain rogue elements in the Russian military, without whose involvement the separatists could not have realistically implemented the BUK launch.  While this would not exculpate Russia in full, it would give the Kremlin a deniability legend, which is mandatory for retaining the delicate consensus of the Russian elite, and for saving face on the international stage.

The West’s interest in such hypothetical self-censorship is solid.  A substantiated disclosure of the Kremlin’s involvement in the shoot-down of a passenger plane would create unquantifiable risks for international security. On one hand, Russia will lose any incentive to moderate its expansionist, retaliatory or subversive activities outside its boundaries, which are currently still mitigated by its desire not to pay a high reputation cost.  On the other hand, such development would lead to collapse of the internal consensus of the elite within Russia, which may lead to destabilization in an unpredictable political direction.  Neither of these prospects are acceptable to the West.

A possible nod towards this scenario may lie in certain unnecessarily open-ended conclusions in the DSB report on MH17. For instance, while the polygon computed by DSB’s experts clearly points to territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists, no explicit reference to that fact is made in the text. When DSB director Tjibbe Joustra was asked if the missile launch area was controlled by separatists, he confirmed. When pressed further to confirm that, therefore, pro-Russian forces must have launched the missile, he declined to do so. When confronted by a reporter who asked “But does 2 + 2 not make a 4?,” Joustra replied: “Yes it does, but sometimes, someone else needs to make that calculation.”

A hint in the same direction is the fact that immediately after the publication of the report, Dutch prime-minister Mark Rutte requested an urgent conversation with Sergey Lavrov. Significantly, this initiative was disclosed only by the Russian side, as part of the standard Russian diplomatic plaintive narrative about the West “that tries to boss Russia around”.

We believe this third hypothesis to be the most plausible. In its scope, an additional unknown variable is whether Russia will agree to such hypothetical political trade. Obviously, whether a similar transaction is desirable for the Kremlin depends on the balance between the domestic political cost of admitting that it has mislead its population for nearly two years, and the reputation cost of disclosure of incriminating information.

What the West may overestimate, however, is the discount factor that the Kremlin places on international reputation cost. Additionally, that reputation cost may be brought down to zero by extraneous events, such as for example the Russian intervention in Syria, laden with risks for massive civilian casualties.

Thus, if Russia does accept a hypothetical deal, it will be to preserve the fragile consensus of the domestic political and business elite, rather than to preserve its international reputation.  The Russian media coverage in the wake of the DSB report was substantially more objective than the defensive, patriotic press coverage following the downing of MH17 in July 2014. While this is far from a symptom of a dramatic collapse of the consensus of the elite, it does signal a tangible threat to Putin’s regime, in case the final report contains strong incriminating evidence. What has become clear now is that the Kremlin no longer has control over the mainstream commercial media and certainly not to the extent required to limit the diffusion of objective information.

In any event, under this hypothesis, these are decisions that the Kremlin must make in the next several months, if not weeks, in order to prevent the JIT investigation from crossing the point of no return.

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