WASHINGTON — The United States has gathered a significant body of evidence that Ukrainian separatists have been trained on Russian territory in recent weeks to fire anti-aircraft missiles, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials who have raised alarms over the reports.
Among other weapons, U.S. officials said the separatists have been trained in using mobile anti-aircraft batteries — missile systems that could be moved around on vehicles and are suspected of having been used in Thursday‘s downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet.
Although U.S. officials on Friday stopped short of assigning direct blame for the shooting of the jet, President Barack Obama said “evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile” that was launched from rebel-held territory in Ukraine. He said the separatists lacked the ability to shoot down large planes “without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training, and that is coming from Russia.”
The Ukrainian rebels are known to have been armed with shoulder-fired missiles that can attack helicopters and other aircraft operating closer to the ground. But U.S. officials have worried that the more powerful, radar-guided batteries could give the separatists a new level of firepower.
Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Europe, late last month said there was clear evidence that Ukrainian rebels were being trained on Russian territory on how to operate “vehicle-borne” anti-aircraft batteries. “We have not seen any of the air-defense vehicles across the border yet, but we’ve seen them training in the western part of Russia,” he said at a Pentagon news conference.
Two weeks later, a Ukrainian AN-26 military cargo plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile while flying at 21,000 feet — an attack that U.S. and Ukrainian government officials blamed on the Russia-backed rebels. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, with nearly 300 civilians aboard, was struck by another missile at an altitude of 33,000 feet, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.
On Friday, U.S. officials said a preliminary intelligence assessment indicated that the airliner was blown up by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired by the separatists. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, noted that the SA-11 is an advanced weapon that requires special training. “We cannot rule out Russian technical assistance,” she told the U.N. Security Council.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said defense officials could not point to specific evidence that an SA-11 surface-to-air missile system had been transported from Russia into eastern Ukraine. But he said it was clear that the rebels had wanted to add such a weapon to their arsenal. “We certainly knew this was a capability they aspired to have access to,” he said.
Adm. Kirby said U.S. officials had “very strong evidence” that the Malaysia Airlines flight was struck by an SA-11 missile fired from a spot along the Russian-Ukrainian border, but the question of “who pulled the trigger” remained uncertain. He noted that Russian military advisers and mercenaries have been helping the rebels on Ukrainian territory. “Whether it was a Russian military unit that did it or a separatist unit that did it, we just don’t know,” he said.
Russian officials and the separatists denied responsibility for the midair disaster. Rebel leaders said they lacked the capability to shoot down a plane so high in the air. But in her U.N. speech, Ms. Power said separatists were “spotted hours before the incident with an SA-11 system at a location close to the site where the plane came down.” She also noted that some separatists had initially posted messages online claiming responsibility for shooting down what they thought was a military transport plane, but later deleted those messages.
The Ukrainian government has also released transcripts of what it said were intercepted phone conversations between separatist rebels and Russian intelligence officials that implicated them in the shootdown. In addition, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry released a video purporting to show rebels moving an SA-11 missile battery out of eastern Ukraine and into Russia. The launcher appeared to be missing one of its missiles. The video’s authenticity could not be independently verified.
James Poss, a retired Air Force major general, said the SA-11 was a sophisticated anti-aircraft system that relies on advanced datalinks to coordinate its radar and its missile launcher. “It would require training and fairly skilled operators to use,” he said.
The entire system can be moved from site to site on large vehicles, but its size makes it difficult to conceal. Several amateur videos purporting to show the SA-11 in eastern Ukraine have been posted on the Internet.
Mr. Poss said the anti-aircraft battery would require regular maintenance and a steady supply of replacement parts, something the rebels would be unlikely to provide on their own. “You’re not going to drive that kind of thing around the roads of eastern Ukraine for months without needing spare parts from Russia,” he said.united nations - United States military - United States government - Russia - Eastern Europe - Europe - Barack Obama - U.S. Department of Defense - Ukraine - Ukraine government - John Kirby