By Leon Aron, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Leon Aron is resident scholar and director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are his own.
In the thick fog of war hanging over eastern Ukraine it is only possible at this point to establish the perimeter of the known and then to evaluate the potential culpability on a more-likely to less-likely scale.
We know that Russia and its proxies have tried to establish a de-facto no-fly zone over the rebel-controlled territory in east-south Ukraine. And while initially only low-flying helicopters and planes reachable by shoulder-fired missiles were downed, the targetable range seems to have increased to an altitude that can only be reached by sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, as evidenced by the Ukrainian military AN-26 cargo aircraft that was brought down on Monday.
The self-proclaimed military commander of the pro-Russian separatists Col. Igor Strelkov allegedly alluded to the no-fly zone when, following the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, he appears to have written on the Russian equivalent of Facebook, Vkontakte, that “we have just shot down an AN-26 airplane…Haven’t we warned them – don't fly in our sky.”
If this post is authentic, the reference to the downing of the AN-26 could be a clue: a sophisticated surface-to-air missile system in the hands of non-professionals unable to distinguish between civilian aircraft and a military transport plane. Of course, both the Russian and Ukrainian professional military could have made the same mistake (in fact, in 2001, a Ukrainian missile mistakenly shot down a Russian passenger jet headed for Novosibirsk from Israel), but the professional military are less likely to make such a mistake than irregular troops.
A transfer of such a system from Russia would be consistent with a broader pattern. Desperate, for domestic political reasons, not to allow the defeat of its proxies in Ukraine, Moscow has moved other heavy equipment across the border, including tanks, armored personal carriers and BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket system. The latter was reportedly deployed last week against a Ukrainian border check point in the Luhansk Oblast, killing up to 30 and wounding nearly 100 Ukrainian soldiers.
In announcing sanctions against Russia on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama stressed the “flow of [Russian] fighters and weapons across the border.” If the disaster is traced to a Russian-made missile, whether fired from the Russian or Ukrainian side of the border, international outrage is likely to lead – and quickly – to more and more serious sanctions against Russia.