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Race for MH17 Crash Cause Is Test of Russia Cooperation

Aircraft Wreckage
Ukraine today closed the airspace in the region and invited the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, or Eurocontrol, the European Union, the National Transportation Safety Board from the U.S. and the International Civil Aviation Organization to aid in its crash probe. Photographer: Dominique Fagett/AFP/Getty Images

Investigators racing to find out what happened to Malaysia Air flight MH17 face the challenge of establishing facts in a war zone amid competing claims over who was responsible for the deaths of all 298 people on board.

World leaders are demanding an independent probe into what brought down the Boeing Co. 777 flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Russia’s border in eastern Ukraine.

The Netherlands, which had the most casualties aboard the aircraft, 173 people, wants “the investigation to take place in a completely objective way and that the Netherlands has access to that investigation,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, said late yesterday in The Hague. Ukraine invited aviation experts from Europe and the U.S. to join in the mission, while Russia plans its own investigation.

Sifting through the causes of any crash is notoriously complicated, even when the jet hasn’t gone down in a militarized zone. Conducting the probe will be harder still with the leaders of Russia and Ukraine trading accusations over who bears the blame, and evidence that pro-Russia separatists in the east of Ukraine have already taken down aircraft with missiles. And that’s assuming the separatists hold to their word to grant access to the area.

External Shock

Commercial aircraft typically have two flight recorders, one that tapes voices in the cockpit and the other for key aircraft data that can help determine the cause of a possible crash. While the so-called black boxes have helped uncover the reason for a crash in past incidents, an external shock like a missile hit would not create relevant data on the recorders.

Reports one or both black boxes are being sent to Moscow raise questions on whether Russia will play an impartial role in the probe.

“It’ll deepen suspicions if the Russians take the black box to Moscow and don’t open it in the presence of internationally recognized investigators,” Karl-Heinz Kamp, academic director at the German government’s Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin, said in a phone interview.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded an immediate, independent investigation into the crash and that those responsible must face justice. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government said the United Nations should lead a probe into the downing of the plane.

Polish Precedent

“The big question is whether Russia will cooperate with the inquiry,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for central and eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. said in a phone interview. “Recall that when the Polish president’s plane crashed in Russia, the Russian government caused problems because it didn’t allow a fully open international inquiry.”

In 2010, the crash of a Tupolev-154 trying to land in heavy fog near the Russian city of Smolensk killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others. While the event initially drew the countries together, sentiment cooled when Polish authorities rejected the findings of a Russian-led investigation pinning responsibility on the Polish pilots. The Polish report, issued four months after the crash, suggested the Russian air controllers were also to blame and that the airport was unsafe to land in.

In yesterday’s incident, a Russian-made air-defense missile appears to have hit the Malaysian Airlines plane that crashed in Ukraine, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials. Evidence so far indicates that the plane was struck by a weapons system known as the SA-11 or Buk, according to four officials who asked for anonymity because an investigation is continuing.

Airspace Closed

Ukraine today closed the airspace in the region and invited the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, or Eurocontrol, the European Union, the National Transportation Safety Board from the U.S. and the International Civil Aviation Organization to aid in its crash probe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered all his agencies, military and civil, to do everything to “investigate this crime,” saying that “such things are absolutely unacceptable,” according to a transcript of a meeting with his economic cabinet yesterday.

Merkel today placed the onus on Putin to ensure a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Ukraine, while saying today that it was too early to assign blame for the crash.

Flight recorders are the size of a small suitcase and are normally painted bright orange to help identify them in any wreckage. In the case of the Malaysian Air 777 that went missing in March, the boxes have so far not been recovered, and may never be found because they have stopped transmitting a signal that helps search parties retrieve the devices.

Ukraine’s President Viktor Poroshenko, in an overnight call with U.S. President Barack Obama, welcomed the assistance of international investigators and both agreed that the crash-site evidence must stay in place until the teams arrive.

Until they do their job, the vacuum created by a lack of hard evidence can only be filled by speculation, according to Gernot Erler, the German government’s coordinator for relations with Russia.

“One can easily imagine that this will heat up the propaganda battle between the two sides even more,” he told ARD television.

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