Austin Carson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Niehaus Center at Princeton University.
What exactly was Russia’s role in last week’s tragic crash of a Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine? What lessons about Russian covert involvement in Ukraine more broadly can be gleaned from past instances of war-time covert aid?
My own research on covert foreign meddling during war provides some useful historical context about the varieties of involvement. Most importantly, however, looking at past cases of covert aid suggests the plausibility of direct involvement of Russian personnel in the firing on MH17. Why? The circumstances surrounding last week’s tragedy resemble past cases in which foreign patrons quietly sent their own personnel along with new weapon systems to temporarily help operate them. If so, Russian personnel may well have been involved in the decision to shoot down a civilian aircraft despite Putin’s early attempts to deny any role.
Whatever Putin has been doing in Ukraine builds on a long tradition. As early as the 1930s, rival sides in the Spanish Civil War benefited from covert weapons, training and even combat participation from three outside governments: Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union. Such meddling was standard fare for both sides in the Cold War. Before the United States’ role in Vietnam had bloomed to outright war, Washington had quietly given covert support to the French in the 1950s and South Vietnam in the early 1960s. The United States and Soviet Union covertly helped rival factions at war elsewhere in the Third World, including in Angola, Afghanistan and Nicaragua. In the past two years, mainstream media has reported tantalizing hints of covert involvement in the Syrian Civil War by Iran and more obscure patrons like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
One important lesson from these past cases is that Russia and other outside powers, including the United States, have options. Covert involvement during war comes in four basic flavors: provision of war-related equipment, tactical advice, training and combat participation. Historical examples demonstrate this diversity. American covert arms to Afghan rebels in the 1980s grew from non-lethal equipment to high-powered sniper rifles and advanced shoulder-fired missile systems like the Stinger. China quietly provided training, weapons and tactical advice to Ho Chi Minh’s forces in its wars against both the French and Americans. In the Spanish Civil War, Italy sent poorly concealed “volunteers” into ground combat while carefully concealed pilots were sent by Nazi Germany (the “Condor Legion”) and the Soviet Union. Western intelligence has no doubt been carefully assessing the nature of Putin’s covert involvement with Ukrainian separatist. Indeed, even before the tragic shootdown of flight MH17, Washington made public some intelligence suggesting use of covert Russian advisers and provision of certain lethal equipment.
One specific lesson raises deeply troubling questions about direct Russian culpability for the MH17 disaster. In past examples, foreign powers are especially likely to slide from war equipment to war participation when sending sophisticated weapon systems. Local recipient usually lack personnel familiar with and experienced in using such systems. Covert patrons therefore may need to send personnel in temporary operational roles to ensure these systems are put to use effectively. For much of 1951 and 1952, Soviet pilots flew many of the planes in the Korean War because North Korean and Chinese pilots lacked training and experience. Stalin’s strategy was to quietly provide air cover via Russian pilots while simultaneously training up Chinese pilots and phasing them in.
This raises an ominous question. Who exactly pulled the trigger, so to speak, for the missile which struck flight MH17? The circumstances surrounding the incident are not conclusive but support the possibility of involvement by Russia’s personnel. The missile system used was a sophisticated piece of military equipment only recently provided to the separatists. Over the weekend, Secretary of State John F. Kerry indicated Russia may have provided this kind of missile system hastily – perhaps prior to completing its training of separatists – in reaction to a Ukrainian government offensive. Moscow even has a track record of covertly providing this kind of weapon system with temporary operational personnel. We now know the CIA had confirmation that covertly provided Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile systems in North Vietnam were initially operated with Russian personnel and later turned over to the North Vietnamese for independent operation.
Sadly even sophisticated intelligence sources may never provide conclusive answers. Powerful military satellite imagery is useful for determining the time and location of the missile’s firing but not identity of personnel (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power’s hedged statement about possible Russian “technical assistance” likely reflects this). Another kind of evidence – signals intercepts – has proven useful for this purpose in the past. U.S. intelligence confirmed Soviet pilots were flying most of the planes during the Korean War by intercepting communications in Russian among pilots and ground crew. But this will not work in Ukraine since both recipient (separatists) and potential external participant (i.e. Russian intelligence or military personnel) use the same language. Answers may come from other intelligence sources like monitored cyber communications but the feasibility of using these to identify who was involved in authorizing and executing the missile strike is hard to judge for those of us outside the intelligence world.
The bottom line is that Russian decision-makers are either guilty of gross negligence or have blood on their hands. If Russian personnel were involved in the decision to bring down MH17, Moscow’s own forces helped authorize and/or execute an operation which tragically resulted in 298 innocent civilian deaths. If Russian personnel were not involved, leaders in Moscow allowed separatists to independently operate an extremely potent missile system in the hopes that training would be enough. Any such hope was surely dashed when apparently trigger-happy rebel leaders destroyed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and prompted a massive diplomatic crisis. Either way, Russia will be forced to answer – and should pose to itself – tough questions in the weeks ahead.
James Goldgeier: MH17 is a tragedy, not a game-changer
Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich: Why the Ukraine separatists screwed up
Joshua Rovner: Putin’s Grand Strategy is Failing
Ivan Katchanovski: What do citizens of Ukraine actually think about secession?