New comments from high-level U.S. officials and portions of declassified intelligence information released on Tuesday indicates—contrary to earlier comments by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry—that Russia had no direct involvement in last week's Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 disaster in which 298 passengers were killed after being shot down over eastern Ukraine.
Overall, the U.S. assessment as of Tuesday appears to be that the shooting down of the airliner was "a mistake" by Ukrainian rebels in the east of the country who remain in a protracted battle with the Ukraine Army controlled by the newly-established government in Kiev. Though the presented evidence—much of which could not be independently verified by media outlets—attempted to make connections between Russian weapons and training facilities—no "smoking gun" was presented that showed Russian forces or personnel were involved.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the evidence presented suggested that an ill-equipped and ill-trained anti-aircraft unit of rebel fighters was behind the shooting down of the plane who could not distinguish it from a military transport plane which the fighters have been targeting in recent weeks:
The launcher that U.S. officials believe fired the SA-11 heat-seeking missile used a rudimentary radar system that gives an incomplete picture of what is flying above, officials said. Such antiaircraft systems are designed to be linked to other radar that would allow the crew on the ground to distinguish between military and civilian aircraft.
Because separatists did not have secondary radar images available, they probably mistook the airliner for a Ukrainian military plane, the officials said.
The missile that took down the jetliner was probably fired by an "ill-trained crew," said one U.S. official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. "It does appear to be a mistake."
Reporting on the briefing, the Moscow Times adds:
The intelligence officials said the U.S. did not know that the separatists were in possession or control of SA-11 missile systems until after the Malaysia Airlines plane was struck.
Separatist leaders have said they did not bring the Malaysian plane down. Russia has repeatedly denied involvement.
The U.S. intelligence officials dismissed Russian assertions that the plane may have been brought down by a surface to air missile fired by Ukrainian government forces, or by a Ukrainian government warplane.
They said the air-to-air missile theory was backed by little or no evidence, and that while the Ukrainian government has had access to SA-11 missiles, there was no evidence they had deployed them anywhere near the region where the plane crashed.
On Sunday, Secretary Kerry went on numerous news programs and declared there was an "enormous amount of evidence" linking Russia to the disaster, but critics were quick to point out the circumstantial, vague, and selective nature of his comments.
If not directly involved, the new line of criticism against Moscow coming from Washington, DC is that Russia, by backing the rebel fighters in the Ukraine, "created the conditions" for the disaster to occur. Strikingly, this is the exact charge made by Russian President Vladimir Putin against U.S. and NATO countries who have given the Ukrainian military its full support as it continues to bombard the restive regions that have declared independence.
In comments released to the media on Tuesday, Putin said he would use whatever influence over the rebel forces that Russia has in order to facilitate the ongoing investigation into the crash, but also had harsh words for western nations that have tried to blame Moscow for the violence in the region—including the downed plane—while leaving out the deadly role they have played by giving Kiev their full backing for its ongoing military offensive against the so-called "pro-Russian separatists" who the government consistently refers to as "terrorists."
"Ultimately, there is a need to call on the authorities in Kiev to respect basic norms of decency, and at least for a short time implement a ceasefire," Putin said. Scores of people have been killed in fighting in recent days and weeks in and around the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and elsewhere.