Logic is what enables one to draw correct conclusions from established facts. Unfortunately, its use is sometimes in short supply, and coupled with that, facts seem to be adjusted to suit the desired conclusion. A recent example of such analysis came from a report by Bellingcat, an independent team of analysts, on the downing of flight MH 17. The conclusion: it was “highly likely” that Russia, and in particular, Putin, ordered the downing of the aircraft. A British paper also jumped in by finding someone who supported that, and added in MH 370 to the list of Putin’s dastardly deeds. Before going further, I should add that this post is not concerned with “who did it?” but rather was the evidence within these claims justified? So, what was Bellingcat’s evidence?
The first piece of evidence is the 53rd antiaircraft brigade was sent towards the Ukrainian border just prior to the event. Everyone knew the Russian military were carrying out exercises there, so that is hardly a surprise. They then argue that there was a marking on the side of the equipment that is generally on Russian equipment, and “seldom on Ukrainian”, a statement for which no further evidence was supplied. The purpose of this marking appears to indicate the centre of gravity, which is critical for loading onto trailers, and the Buk system that allegedly brought down MH 17 was driven on a trailer. Now, unless Ukrainians want to have a serious control problem in managing their vehicles, they will have some way of knowing where the centre of gravity is, and a marking is clearly the quickest way to manage that. So the presence of any marking may more reflect common sense and experience rather than point of origin.
They then show a video clip of a Russian Buk system headed towards the border (i.e. in Russia) and one at Luhansk about the same time. Both are claimed to have the same loading mark. Actually, the second image is very poorly defined, so maybe a little imagination is required here, but if you know the answer you want, getting it is far from implausible. They also provide an image in which half of a 3-digit number could be seen, so the rest was interpolated (guessed) but the significance of it eludes me. It is hard to say this shows it belongs to the 53rd brigade because there is no evidence the Russian army provides obvious evidence to observers to help foreign intelligence, and 53 is a 2-digit number.
However, for me, the critical part of these images is what is omitted from the comments. The shape of the two units are far different. The latest Russian unit is far more massive, and while the images are difficult to reconcile because the second one is so poor, the second unit is demonstrably shorter. The conclusion I draw is exactly the opposite of these analysts: the short unit is an older unit.
To summarize, the conclusion that MH 17 was brought down by a Buk is indeed highly likely. That it was brought down by a recently supplied Buk 3×2 is postulated without any evidence at all. The image of some other system is simply not relevant. What is even more interesting is the report alleges the Russian soldiers from the 53rd brigade would have pulled the trigger. If that were so, the Russian army would never send in an advanced piece of equipment unsupported by infantry from a motor rifle unit. That is failing military strategy 101, and whatever you may say about the Russian army, it is not incompetent. The image in Luhansk was unsupported.
What evidence should be there? Well, the remains of MH 17 have been all collected and taken away. Assuming everything was found, there should also be remains of the missile that brought it down. Those remains will specify what it was. Images of Russian soldiers would also help, but are far from necessary. Once you know what brought it down, the case is closed apart from who pulled the trigger.
The idea that Putin would order it and to allege that without any evidence other than that he is President of Russia borders on the ridiculous. First, why would he do so? What possible gain could there be? Why pick on MH 17? What has Malaysia done to him? How would the troops know how to pick out MH 17 from the other aircraft flying overhead? (Had it been the 53rd brigade, their equipment would allow them to identify the aircraft as a civilian plane, in which case it would have been deliberate.) However, the older Buk system the eastern Ukrainians would have had access to when the eastern armouries were “acquired” would not have this ability, particularly in the hands of rebels. Recall the east was being bombed regularly by the western Ukrainians so the rebels, when they saw an aircraft on their radar, why would they not let fly? They were hardly skilled.
For me, it is hardly helpful to provide such reports when the obvious evidence is missing, or unavailable to them. Rather than wait for it to become available, they let fly anyway. Why? My guess is simple publicity for themselves. That is hardly encouraging. Nor is the failure to establish facts and use logic instead of rhetoric.