At 4:21 p.m. local time Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, a Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur carrying 295 people, crashed near the town of Shakhtyorsk, in Ukraine's Donetsk province. The plane was reportedly flying at its cruising altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) and following its regular flight path when it crashed. The flight crashed about 32 kilometers (20 miles) away from the Russian border.
Based on altitude of flight, only medium- to long-range surface-to-air missiles could have shot down the civilian aircraft. Several different variants of this air defense system capable of engaging planes at the reported altitude are deployed in both Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian officials suggested that a Buk SA-17, a road-mobile system, was used in the incident and have blamed pro-Russian rebels for shooting down the aircraft. However, pro-Russian separatists have refuted the allegations, arguing that they only possess man-portable air-defense systems and do not have access to advanced systems.
The crash comes a day after two Ukrainian military Su-25 planes were shot at in Donetsk province and only a few days after a Ukrainian An-26 was shot down in Luhansk province. While Ukraine has accused Russian forces of targeting its aircraft, Russian officials have denied involvement, and the separatist rebels have claimed responsibility.
The location of the crash, above a cluster of towns in Donetsk province where fighting is ongoing between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian militias, and where military aircraft have been repeatedly targeted, suggests the crash is the result of an attack. However, the airliner was likely mistakenly targeted. While separatists have targeted Ukrainian military aircraft in the past, targeting an international airliner with civilian passengers has not been among the separatists' goals. Nevertheless, with the plane traveling from west to east, it was more likely to be seen as a threat by the separatists than it would have been by the Ukrainian military.
If Russia has given the separatists a Buk SA-17 system, as the Ukrainian authorities claim, pressure for Russia to cease its activities in eastern Ukraine will increase, and the Ukrainian military will likely receive more international support for aggressively rooting out separatist groups in the area. However, if the Ukrainian military, which has been actively carrying out airstrikes in the region, is responsible for accidentally shooting down the plane, Russia's position that the Kiev government's campaign in eastern Ukraine is illegitimate due to civilian deaths will be strengthened. Both the Ukrainians and the rebels have said they are not responsible for the crash. Until more details are uncovered, both sides will continue pointing fingers at each other and tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border will increase.
The U.S. and European response will be critical to watch as the investigation ensues. If the United States blames Russia for this incident, its sanctions campaign against Moscow will have a much better chance of recruiting European backing, pushing the standoff to a critical level.