Why did Russia close its airspace near Donbas one day before flight MH17 was downed?

Snapshot of animation released by the Dutch Safety Board in October 2015 as it released its report into the tragedy which definitively showed a Russian-made missile was responsible for the crash 

Analysis & Opinion

17 hours and 20 minutes before flight MH17 was shot down above Donbas, Russia suddenly issued restrictions essentially banning civilian air traffic in regions adjacent to eastern Ukraine. Despite this restriction, the air traffic controller allowed the crew of MH17 to continue their flight as if nothing had happened. So far, Russia has offered no explanation for this, Russian Forbes writes.

When on 13 October 2015 the Dutch Safety Board released its report into the crash of flight MH17, which was downed on 17 July 2014 above the skies of eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed separatists were waging a war against the Ukrainian government, it implicitly accused Ukraine of being one of the culprits of the shot down airplane because of not closing its airspace. The reasoning goes like this: had Ukraine predicted that a civilian aircraft would be fired upon at the cruising altitude of the MH17 and prohibited flights above Donbas, no airplane would be shot down, and 298 people wouldn’t die.

This argument was eagerly picked up by Russian officials, who were quick to present Ukraine not closing its airspace as “of one of the main reasons for the tragedy,” as Russia’s deputy Foreign Minister Aleksei Meshkov worded it in an official memo of the Russian Foreign Ministry to Regina Jones-Bos, the Dutch ambassador to Russia, on 3 October 2016. This was a convenient talking point for Russia; as Bellingcat’s open source report on the third year anniversary of the MH17 tragedy shows, the only realistic culprit of the MH17 downing is Russia’s 53d Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, who brought a Buk into Ukraine on the day MH17 was shot down with a missile produced in Russia, and since the date of the tragedy, Russia had engaged in a campaign to conceal that fact.

Euromaidan Press has previously addressed this argument, offering the following reasons for why Ukraine can’t be considered guilty of not closing its airspace on 17 July 2014:

  1. Before 17 July, there were no indications that airplanes were endangered above 10,000, as there was no proof that Buks had been used – the Ukrainian military airplanes shot down before 17 July 2014 were flying under the cruising altitude of MH17;
  2. Ukraine had only three days to assess the situation after its military airplanes were shot down and decide whether civilian aircraft are under risk;
  3. Russia’s previous targets were not civilian aircraft but Ukrainian military planes, which could be shot down with more primitive systems than the likes of a Buk. Ukraine could not have predicted that a Buk would be brought into its territory to shoot down civilian aircraft.
  4. Practically no country closes its airspace, even if there is war. If there is no obvious threat to passenger flights, the airspace remains open. International authorities are also very reluctant to close airspaces.

Design: Ganna Naronina

Read more: Ukraine had no reason to close its airspace above 10 000 m before MH17 disaster | Infographic

Three years after the tragedy, when it’s difficult to deny that Russia is the culprit, Russia’s Forbes has analyzed overlooked aspects of this story and is asking Russian officials questions which yet have no answer.

In an article published on 16 July 2017, Forbes author Vadim Lukashevich draws attention to page 180 the DSB 2015 report which states that on the night of 16-17 July 2017, Russia suddenly imposed airspace restrictions on Russian airspace up to 16,000 m for flights adjacent to Ukraine, which is comparable to the maximum height of the Buk’s firing altitude (18 km). After 17 hours and 20 minutes, a Buk shot down the Malaysian Boeing with passengers on Ukrainian territory close to Russia.

The NOTAM UUUUV6158/14 published by Rostov’s Flight Information Region stated that it applies from the ground up to FL530, much higher than the existing Ukrainian restriction of FL320.

Prior to that date, Russia had not imposed any restrictions, while Ukraine had gradually closed up its airspace: first, restrictions were issued for flights below 1500 m, then (from 6 to 30 June 2014), for flights bel0w FL260 (7,925 m). On 14 July 2014, Ukraine limits the minimum flight altitude for civilian passenger aircraft above the conflict zone in Donbas to FL320 (9,754 m).

The Russian side indicated that the restrictions imposed on 16 July were necessary to ensure “international flight safety,” and the reason was “combat actions on the territory of Ukraine near the state border with the Russian Federation and the acts of firing from the territory of Ukraine towards the territory of the Russian Federation.”

It’s unclear why Russia decided to impose such limitations specifically on 16 July, despite combat actions going on in Donbas for several months.

Lukashevich wrote:

“So, until this moment, Ukrainian Buks in the Anti-terrorist operation zone didn’t concern our [Russian – ed] air traffic control service, but starting from 00:00 on 17 July they suddenly became deadly. For several months, they [the Buks – ed] just stood there in the Anti-terrorist operation zone, but suddenly in the night of 17 July they (in Russia’s opinion) got ready to shoot in the direction of Russian airspace. And just as soon as Russia prepared for this (beforehand!), some Buk shoots down a passenger airliner right away. Do you believe in such striking coincidences?!”

When the Dutch Safety Board asked the Russian side about the reason for imposing these restrictions in the course of the investigation, Rosaviatsia, Russia’s federal agency for air transport, answered that the measures were taken to “create agreement with the adjoining Ukrainian airspace.”

However, no agreement was created: Ukraine closed its airspace up to 9,454 m (FL320), and Russia closed it to a higher altitude, up to 16,150 m (FL530), which essentially was a full ban on civil aviation.

The Dutch experts did not receive a clarification from the Russian side on this apparent “conflict of altitudes,” or on Russia’s reasons to restrict civilian flights at a higher altitude than in Ukraine.

Moreover, Forbes writes, MH17’s flight route intersected the Rostov ATC Control Zone, which received instructions to restrict flights up to FL530 starting from midnight. Therefore, the Rostov air traffic controller knew that when MH17 would cross into Russian airspace flying at its FL330, it would enter a zone forbidden for civilian aviation flights, but was silent. Moreover, he said nothing to over 150 other civilian airliners which entered Russian airspace starting from midnight of 17 July 2014 until the moment when Ukraine closed down its airspace.

Vadim Lukashevich puts the following questions before Rosaviatsiya and its deputy director Oleg Storchevoy:

  • why did the Rostov Flight Information Region restrict flight altitudes in Russian airspace near the Ukrainian border specifically on 17 July 2014, the day MH17 was shot down?
  • why is the altitude of this restriction out of the reach for all existing types of civilian aircraft but is practically the same as the maximum shooting altitude of the Buk anti-aircraft missile system?
  • why did the air traffic controller, having received on 16 July the NOTAM UUUUV6158/14 which restricted civilian flights up to 15,150 m starting from 00:00 of 17 July 2017, choose to ignore it and continued to service the airspace adjacent to Ukraine as if there were no restrictions issued at all? Why did some 150 civilian airplanes manage on 17 July 2014 to fly through the restricted Russian airspace within the area of responsibility of the Rostov air traffic controller?
  • why was the Rostov air traffic controller, who was informed about the restrictions imposed on civil aviation flights below FL530, preparing to escort flight MH17 as it was approaching the Ukrainian-Russian border, instead of informing the crew (directly, or through Ukrainian controllers) that they are approaching a zone of closed airspace?
  • why did no Russian official, including Rosaviatsiya, nowhere and at no time mention Russia’s incredible insight when speaking about Ukraine’s failure to close its airspace, i.e. “Why didn’t Ukraine close its airspace above the armed conflict zone like Russia did?”
The Joint Investigation Team researching the MH17 catastrophe concluded that the airliner was shot down by a rocket issued from a Buk antiaircraft missile system which came from Russian territory.

Open source investigations by Bellingcat and other teams identify the Buk as being brought into Ukraine by the 53d Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade from Russia.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense has been involved in disseminating faked satellite images and other information attempting to prove that MH17 was shot down by a Buk on territory controlled by Ukraine.

Russia announced that the results of Bellingcat’s investigations are not trustworthy.

Malaysia hopes that the suspects of causing the MH17 catastrophe will be known until the end of 2017.

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Source: forbes.ru

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