Two days after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over contested Ukrainian territory, killing all 298 people on board, many questions surrounding the horrific tragedy remain unanswered.
Who did it?
The most important question is that of responsibility. Three parties are possible: Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, Russian regular army soldiers operating on the wrong side of the border, or Ukrainian military elements fighting the first two.
President Obama on Friday said that the surface to air missile that downed the jet was fired from a location under control of the separatists. That doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t fired by Russian or Ukrainian army operating in the region -- although pro-Russian units have shot down several Ukrainian planes in the same fashion, including a AN-26 military transport on Monday.
Both sides have blamed each other, but everyone agrees that it was a Russian-made SA-11 Buk missile. The simple fact that it was Russian-made, however, doesn’t rule out Ukrainian use, as the country has always relied heavily on its former Soviet partner for its weaponry. U.S. intelligence officials have told NBC News that they believe the missile launcher originally belonged to Ukrainian forces but was seized by separatists.
And Ambassador Samantha Power at the U.N. Security Council on Friday said that the aircraft was "likely downed by a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine."
Meanwhile U.S. officials have long believed that Moscow is pulling the separatists’ strings – although President Vladimir Putin insists that the militia men are not within his control.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters on Friday that "it strains credulity to think that (the missile) could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance."
How will the investigation proceed?
With wreckage strewn across a six square miles in the remote — and dangerous — area of Eastern Ukraine, it’s unclear if international investigators will be fully able to do their jobs. Separatists have a tenuous grip on the region, and there were reports of gunfire even after the crash.
There were reports that the pro-Russian militia men had taken the plane’s black boxes. Separatist leader Aleksandr Borodai first told the Associated Press that they didn't have them, then one of his aides said eight devices had been found -- but a Boeing 777 would typically only have two black boxes. If the separatists do have the plane's recording devices it's unclear what they will do with them.
President Obama on Friday insisted that the rebels allow international investigators access to the area, and one lone agent with the NTSB and two FBI agents were sent to the area.
But unlike more mysterious airline disasters where planes disappear or fall to Earth for unknown reasons, the basic cause of MH17’s demise is fairly certain.
"What the NTSB investigators come up with isn't going to be the most relevant piece,” said Michael Leiter, NBC News National Security Analyst. “Far more important is the intelligence piece. What we see form overhead imagery and the like about where this missile came from and who fired it."
ANASTASIA VLASOVA / EPA
Armed pro-Russian militants pass next to the wreckage of a Boeing 777, of Malaysia Arilines flight MH17 debris, which crashed during flight over the eastern Ukraine region near Donetsk, Ukraine, 18 July 2014.
Could the pilots have done anything to save the plane?
A major goal of any investigation is always to prevent future disasters, but there’s not likely much the pilots could have done.
"They had zero warning, zero -- They were in the middle of a word and they were gone. That’s how quick it was,” Anthony Roman, an aviation and security expert and former commercial pilot and flight instructor, told NBC News on Friday. "There are no systems on a commercial airliner that can detect a military missile. There is no possibility, there is a very low likely hood they even saw it. It’s travelling at three times the speed of sound.”
Even given the outside possibility the pilots had seen the missile coming right at them, there would still no hope.
"A triple seven is like a lumbering cargo plane, you start to turn it and she takes her time," said Roman.
But why were they flying over such a dangerous area in the first place?
Some have pointed blame at the flight plan, saying that commercial aircraft shouldn’t be flying over Eastern Ukraine, which is turning into a war zone. Malaysia Airlines officials pointed out that 55 flights took the same route the day before and it had been approved by international authorities -- but way back in April the FAA had prohibited U.S. airlines from flying over Crimea, which is near by.
After Thursday’s crash, that order was expanded to cover Eastern Ukraine.
"I find it pretty remarkable that a civil airline company — if this aircraft was on the flight plan — that they are flight-planning over an area like that," Robert Francis, a former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board told the Associated Press on Friday.
What consequences will there be?
If it is determined that separatists acting completely on their own shot down the plane, it could spur an international alliance to go in and rout them out — but since Russia is almost certainly behind them, it’s doubtful anyone would want to start World War III just yet.
More likely, are even more of the sanctions that the U.S. and European Union have already levied on Russia.
"The new U.S. sanctions that the president put in place a few days ago are really in response to a view that Russia has not backed down at all, it has sent troops and it has sent specially weaponry, like these surface to air missiles to the separatists,” said Leiter. “So, from that perspective, the U.S. knows he’s been doubling down, the question now for the intelligence community will be: Is there any crack in that? Does he look at this situation and say this is so bad, that there might be an off-ramp to deescalate. I don’t think that’s the most likely outcome given Putin’s background, but I think there’s at least some chance, and that’s the leadership-intention piece that the US intelligence community will try to discern over the coming days.”
It is also possible that a case could be made to prosecute militia men, or even Russian officials, in the International Criminal Court for war crimes/crimes against humanity -- but Russia has never been a member (neither is the United States anymore) so they aren't subject to the court's jurisdiction.
“An ICC case is not impossible, but it is unlikely for both procedural and substantive reasons,” Rebecca Hamilton, an expert in international law who teaches at Columbia Law School, told NBC News.
The United Nations Security Council could conceivably try to punish Russian officials as well -- but Russia, of course, has veto power over anything the UNSC does.
First published July 19 2014, 1:49 AM