Faced with a preponderance of evidence that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17 was shot down by Ukrainian rebels using a weapons system they could almost certainly only have acquired and operated with Russian help, the Russian government has a predictably implausible excuse. They’re strongly suggesting that the airliner may have been shot down by a Ukrainian Air Force jet that was tracking it. A few problems: The Ukrainian jet can’t fly nearly as high as the airliner was flying, it’s barely as fast as the airliner, and the only evidence that it was tracking the airliner so far comes from the Russian government.
At a press conference in Moscow on Monday, the Russian-government-owned outlet RT reports, a Russian military commander said the following:
A Ukraine Air Force military jet was detected gaining height, its distance from the Malaysian Boeing was 3 to 5 kilometers. [We] would like to get an explanation as to why the military jet was flying along a civil aviation corridor at almost the same time and at the same level as a passenger plane. The SU-25 fighter jet can gain an altitude of 10 kilometers, according to its specification. It’s equipped with air-to-air R-60 missiles that can hit a target at a distance up to 12km, up to 5km for sure.
Allegedly, the U.S. had a satellite in the region that could have observed this — Russia has produced graphics showing where the Ukrainian jet was, but no video documentation. Here’s the Defense Ministry’s graphic:
The problem is that, according to its manufacturer, it’s impossible that the Ukrainian jet, a Sukhoi Su-25, known as a “Frogfoot” in NATO parlance, could have been “at the same level as” the Malaysia Airlines flight. The Malaysian flight was flying at 33,000 feet, while the Su-25 has a service ceiling of about 23,000 feet — when it doesn’t have any weapons loaded. It’s not an interceptor; it’s a ground-attack aircraft. (Conveniently, the Russian official made up a service ceiling for the Su-25 that’s precisely equal to the altitude of MH 17.)
The Su-25 can, as the Russians note, carry air-to-air missiles with a range of more than 10 kilometers, making it physically possible, in theory, for one to have shot down the airliner, but it would have to do so from 10,000 feet — 3 kilometers — below the 777. Moreover, the Su-25 is not exactly a sprinter — its maximum airspeed is just barely more than the 777’s cruising speed. (In part because it can’t fly as high as the 777.) Lastly, bizarrely, as the Aviationist points out, who knows what’s going on with Russian graphics but the graphic above uses a 707 to depict a 777 and a retired American electronic-warfare plane (an EF-111) to depict the much-smaller Su-25.
And, of course, leaving the physical issues aside, there is a plausible explanation for how the separatists would have shot down a plane no one wanted to shoot down — they confused it with a Ukrainian-military aircraft, several of which they’ve shot down — while there isn’t one for the Ukrainians’ having done so. (Trying to shoot down a civilian plane and blame it on the Russians, even if Ukraine is that callous, would be way too risky and unnecessary, while shooting down a Russian jet would set off a war they couldn’t handle.)