When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine last week, the event heightened an already hostile situation with the United States and Europe on one side, and Russia and Ukrainian separatists on the other.

Separatists are being blamed for the incident, which was likely unintentional said West Virginia University political science professor Boris Barkanov.

“Early indications suggest that they thought it was another military plane and did not realize the plane was a commercial airliner filled with civilians,” he said.

Peter Gall, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said that no matter who fired the SA-11 ground-to-air missile, it was operated by someone who knew how to use the system and aimed it at the aircraft.

“The bottom line is they were a sitting duck, and this missile was launched by someone,” he said. “In all likelihood it was guided by someone until it went active.

“The average garden variety couch potato would not be able to operate this missile system.”

This particular missile was radar-guided, meaning that a ground station selected the target and then the missile’s internal radar system locked on to the target and took over guidance. The SA-11 has a 60-90 percent kill rate, he said.

Gall said the type of missile has a range of 17 miles and an altitude of up to 38,000 feet.

The whole process would have been quick, Gall said.

“The odds that they were aware that they were going to be hit are pretty small,” he said. “They probably never saw it, never heard it, never had any idea that they were about to get hit,” he said.

The aftermath of the crash continues to contribute to political tension in the region.

“The downing of the plane is a terrible tragedy and because of this symbolism, it elicits a very negative reaction from Western publics,” Barkanov said. “This plays into the hands of hawks in Washington and Europe, who support a hard line in the conflict between Kiev and the separatists, and also support continued confrontation with Russia.”

He expects the economic sanctions, political isolationism and incremental increases in military deployments to intensify in Eastern Europe.

Russia for its part is invested in Ukraine and has shown no indication of backing down from its support of the separatists.

“In my opinion, it makes sense to raise the costs for Russia for continued intervention in Ukraine,” Barkanov said. “However, we have to create incentives for cooperation as well. So far there has only been rhetoric about cooperation but no concrete moves toward a compromise political settlement that addresses the participants’ interests and grievances.

“By wielding only sticks and no carrots, the United States is contributing to the conflict’s escalation, and there is no peaceful endgame in sight.”

Both faculty members are available to the media to offer commentary. Barkanov can be reached via e-mail at Boris.Barkanov@mail.wvu.edu. Gall can be reached via e-mail at Pete.Gall@mail.wvu.edu.



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