Speaking last week on the South Lawn of the White House about the actions of Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists around the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, President Obama leveled the question: “What exactly are they trying to hide?”
Surely we want responsible parties to get to the site to identify remains, catalog them and treat them with dignity. Forensic examination of the wreckage will yield additional information about the point of impact, the disintegration of the airframe and related details. Review of the black box recorder will document the catastrophic failure of the aircraft’s integrity.
Even if Russia and its Ukrainian proxies deny us all of this, they still would not hide what happened. All of the details would be essential (and appropriately so) in a court of law, but statecraft and foreign policy would be hopelessly clumsy if actions were dependent on lengthy process, forensic investigations and “beyond reasonable doubt” standards of proof.
Intelligence is charged with enabling action in the face of doubt, to allow a state to act with prudence and confidence, even with lingering ambiguity. Such an approach is not without mistakes — the case of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction comes to mind — but we may be seeing the costly product of the alternative in Syria and Iraq and, dare I say, in enforcing “red lines.”
In this case, though, I’m betting the evidence is near overwhelming since determining truth plays to some powerful strengths of American intelligence. Although I haven’t seen a shred of classified information, let me suggest what might lie within the pages of the presidential daily briefs this week.
First of all, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s a history. We’re all well-acquainted with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea, the robust military demonstrations he orchestrated along Ukraine’s eastern border and his support of Ukrainian separatists.
Until early May, Mr. Putin seemed to be on a roll. The stealth invasion and annexation of Crimea was as masterful as it was illegal. The Kiev government was rudderless awaiting presidential elections. Western sanctions on Russia were far from unbearable.
Then two mobs clashed in Odessa, a city one-third Russian, and more than 40 separatists were killed. At that point, Mr. Putin should have been reflecting on Slobodan Milosevic’s reckless support of Serbs outside of Serbia until the actions of Milosevic’s crazed nationalist clients led to catastrophe for his own government.
Perhaps Mr. Putin did. His rhetoric softened and his military footprint along the Ukrainian border lightened, but the threat of instability was what kept him in the game. He continued to support to the likes of Igor Strelkov, the crazed, self-proclaimed minister of defense of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Mr. Putin may have been surprised when Kiev got its military act together in late June and showed capacity — including air power — to retake territory in the east from the separatists. Russia, perhaps Mr. Putin personally, made the fateful decision to backstop the separatists with heavy equipment, including a fairly modern battlefield air defense weapon, the SA-11/17 or Buk system.
The move would not have gone undetected. American intelligence knows a lot about this system. It’s widely deployed, it’s big, and it consists of multiple tracked vehicles. It has unique radar signals to acquire and identify targets and to launch, track and control its missiles. We have an intelligence collection architecture that was built for just this kind of stuff.
Overhead satellites would have routinely gathered electronic intelligence to locate the radar. Imagery satellites would have been tasked with imaging the area, and imagery analysts would exploit the collected imagery.
Communications intelligence could determine what was being said about the missile sites, whether they were manned by separatists or Russian military personnel, whether they were tied in with the vast Russian early warning system, and who ultimately had launch authority. There also would have been an attempt to identify whether separatists were trained on the Buk system in Russia. Even if communications were disciplined and encrypted, their patterns — who was talking with whom and when — would have been revealing.
Finally, there is a branch of intelligence that measures physical phenomena. Measurement and signature intelligence surely would have recorded the heat from the airliner’s explosion and likely would have detected the heat plume of the missile itself.
In short, we know what happened. That evidence is already in.
The real question is: Are we going to do anything about it beyond hectoring Mr. Putin for access to a crime scene?
What happened July 17 was indeed a crime, and that aspect should be handled in due course.
But it was also the product of a cynical, irresponsible, high-risk, inevitably deadly policy choice made by a head of state. Unless we are willing to endure more of the same, Vladimir Vladimirovich needs to understand that such actions have real and costly policy consequences.
The evidence needed to act on that is already well in hand.
• Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.