(formerly Son of Putin Redux. Phrase from here)
I’d like to revise and extend my previous post, because handing over serious surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to a bunch of incompetent amateurs* is not the work of a smart man. Bringing down a civilian airliner (and adding nearly 300 more deaths to the ongoing tragedy in the Ukraine) is such a monumentally stupid thing to do that it boggles the mind. Every single country with someone on that plane now has cause to be enraged with Russia. The European countries that had shied away from imposing harsh sanctions on Russia now have to be reconsidering it, as does the United States.
In the long term, it may not end up changing the ultimate result, but it will delay Russia being forgiven and likely cost it more in economic damages. For what? There’s no earthly advantage to be gained from destroying a civilian airliner for anyone involved. It’s not like the pro-Russian separatists actually needed a SAM that could reach to 33,000 feet, where the Malaysian Airliner was flying. Bombs dropped from that height would be lucky to get within miles of their targets. In World War II, American bombers only got their bombs within 1000 feet of their target 20% of the time, and they were bombing from a lower altitude. The Ukrainian Air Force doesn’t have planes or weapons to manage anything substantial anyway. If the Russians had wanted to help them out, man portable SAMS (MANPADS) would be plenty effective against Ukrainian helicopters and attack jets under 15,000 feet.
I can think of a number of different explanations:
1. Putin really is this stupid. He approved the giving of SAMs to the separatists, not worrying about the possible consequences.
2. Somebody at a lower level in the Russian military got a little overexcited and exceeded their orders to give the separatists the SAMS.
3. (conspiracy option) The Ukrainians did this to discredit the Russians and the separatists.
4. (conspiracy option) Putin did so that he can distance himself from the separatists and wind things up quickly.
Three and four strike me as unlikely: it would be too likely that a Ukrainian role in this would be discovered (three) and how could Putin guarantee that the separatists would do something cataclysmically stupid with the SAMs? (four). No, I suspect that it was some combination of one and two. Putin ordered them given SAMs, without thinking through the variety of SAMs that could be handed over, and the Russian military happily offloaded some of its surplus SA-11s (have to buy replacements now, right? More budget).
* I’m going off what is suspected now, so this too may be quickly superseded.