TAMPA — The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine might have happened because Russian-backed separatists thought the passenger plane was a military aircraft, a colonel in the Ukraine army stationed at MacDill Air Force Base said Thursday.
Vitalli Nazola is Ukraine’s senior national representative to the U.S. Central Command international coalition and has been stationed at MacDill for three months. He blamed the separatist forces for the attack on the airliner that was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with nearly 300 passengers and crew.
“It was a terrible attack by the rebels,” he said in an interview with The Tampa Tribune Thursday evening.
Nazola said it his government’s position that the Boeing 777 jet was shot out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile fired by a BUK mechanized firing battery. The missiles can reach a maximum height of about 72,000 feet, according to IHS Janes, a company providing defense industry expertise, easily within range of the airliner’s reported 33,000-foot altitude.
Nazola, insisting Ukraine did not fire the missiles, said there were only two ways separatists could have obtained the BUK system, originally developed by the Soviet Union.
“They could have captured it from one of our military units after it was left behind,” he said. “But those air defense systems were partially destroyed. The other possibility is they brought it in from Russia.”
Either way, he said it was his opinion that it would have taken Russian assistance to fire the system.
“They couldn’t have repaired it by themselves,” he said of the rebels. “They don’t have the spare parts.”
Though not an air defense expert, Nazola surmised that the rebels mistook the passenger jet for a Ukrainian military transport. Rebels have recently shot down two, he said, along with two or three Ukrainian military helicopters.
“There is not such a big difference in the radar signature of a passenger jet and one of our big transports,” he said. “They were hunting for this type of aircraft.”
Nazola said his nation intercepted mobile phone communications between the rebels in which they initially were bragging about shooting down the aircraft until learning that it was a civilian airliner.
“Then they changed their rhetoric,” said Nazola.
The shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines flight has only added to the already heightened state of readiness by Ukraine forces loyal to the government, said Nazola.
“Our higher command nowadays is taking steps to review our tactics and strategies and operations,” he said. “It’s not just this just, but the other shootdowns as well. We are looking for more effective steps and measures to counter the threats and eliminate them.”
Nazola said he hopes the tragedy will cause a shift in how Americans perceive what is taking place in Ukraine.
“European countries should change their minds, too. We must understand that this is war against not only Ukraine, but against the whole democratic society,” said Nazola,