Two military jets were shot down in Ukraine on Wednesday in an attack that could provide evidence as to what kind of firepower the country’s separatist rebels have at their disposal—and what help they may be getting from Russia.
A Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman told reporters in Kiev that two of its Sukhoi SU-25 fighter jets were shot down while flying at 5,200 meters (17,000 feet) over the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. The pilots ejected, and their whereabouts are unknown.
At 17,000 feet, the planes would have been outside the range of the shoulder-fired missiles that the rebels contend are their only air-defense weapons. The planes would, however, be in range of a surface-to-air missile such as the Buk, which is suspected to have been used to shoot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 on July 17.
There are at least three possible explanations—any of which would be potentially explosive, if true.
1. The rebels have been lying. This possibility would mean that the rebels do, in fact, have missiles capable of hitting a plane at high altitude. The evidence mustered so far that the Malaysia Air plane was shot down at 33,000 feet over rebel-held territory has proven a major problem. “The rebels are clearly having a very difficult time denying having access to such equipment,” says Reed Foster, a defense analyst at IHS Jane’s in London. The rebels have said they have shoulder-fired weapons known as MANPADS, but Foster says shooting down a plane at 17,000 would be “far outside the capacity” of those weapons.
More evidence that the rebels have more-powerful surface-to-air missiles would also intensify suspicions about Russian involvement because operating such weaponry requires specialized auxiliary equipment and training that’s not readily available to an ad-hoc rebel force.
2. The Ukrainian fighter jets were hit by missiles fired from within Russia. This scenario corresponds to the “preliminary information” obtained by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, spokesman Andriy Lysenko told the Wall Street Journal. Russia has consistently denied providing military equipment to the rebels, let alone firing over the border into Ukrainian airspace. Any evidence that Russia has done so would greatly ratchet up pressure in the West to impose heavy sanctions on Moscow.
3. Ukraine is lying about the fighter jets’ altitude. A deception by the rebels could potentially bolster evidence that they shot down the Malaysian Airlines plane. If the Ukrainians are found to be lying, though, it could cast doubt on their account of the Malaysian Airlines disaster. It’s plausible that the jets could have been flying either at low or high altitude. The type of jets involved, SU-25, are typically used in a “close combat support role,” providing air support to ground troops, says Joseph Dempsey, a defense analyst at Britain’s International Institute for Strategic Students. While engaged in combat, “you wouldn’t expect them to operate as high up” as 17,000 feet, Dempsey says, because the plane generally carries unguided bombs and rockets that are intended to be fired at relatively close range. Dempsey notes that the SU-25 would be expected to climb to a cruising altitude of about 17,000 feet after completing a combat mission.