An outdated missile system, captured by an inexperienced group of rebel fighters, could have plausibly taken down any aircraft within firing range. Photo: Getty
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Whoever shot down the Malaysia Airlines plane probably didn't know what they were aiming at

It’s highly possible that the civilian airliner was mistaken for a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane.

Whoever shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Donetsk on Thursday, killing all 298 people aboard, probably didn’t know what they were shooting at. It appears that the plane was taken down by a Soviet-era Buk missile system, which separatists claimed to have gotten their hands on when they gained control of a Ukrainian air defense base on June 29.

The Buk is a Soviet-era air defense system used by both Ukrainian and Russian defense forces. “When you’re sitting behind a radar screen of one of these things, there’s no way to tell what it is. With the Buk, there’s no way to distinguish between friendly and foe. You’re just going to take a shot at it,” says Raymond Finch, a Eurasian military analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office. “If [the separatists] had reports that the Ukrainians were flying over their airspace, they would shoot. It begs the question of who is sitting behind the trigger. Are they highly trained? My guess is no they are not.”

It’s highly possible that the civilian airliner was mistaken for a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane, the same model that separatists in Luhanskshot down on June 14, killing all 49 people on board, mostly Ukrainian servicemen. This Monday, rebels from the Luhansk People’s Republic shot down another Ukrainian army transport plane.

If a Buk system was in fact used to shoot down the MH17, it must have lacked an automatic disengagement system that equips more sophisticated air defense missiles, designed to prevent deployment against civilian aircrafts. “A lot of these earlier systems don’t have that,” says Finch. “But they’re still highly efficient, especially against a civilian airliner.” 

There are unconfirmed rumors that rebel commander Igor Strelkov haspublicly taken credit for the incident, even though the Donetsk People’s Republic has officially denied responsibility. But it's not hard to connect the dots as to how this might have happened: An outdated missile system, captured by an inexperienced group of rebel fighters, could have plausibly taken down any aircraft within firing range. Plus, Nataliya Gumenyuk raises the point that Ukrainian forces haven't been using anti-aircraft missiles in this fight—the separatists don't have planes. 

It’s not the first time that Soviet-era weapons have mistakenly taken down a civilian aircraft. In 1983, the Korean Air flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet SU-15 interceptor after being mistakenly taken for a military aircraft. All 269 people aboard were killed, and at first, the Soviet Union denied wrongdoing. The Soviet pilot who fired at the Korean Air jet told The New York Times, “I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use.''

Thursday's incident is even deadlier, and will no doubt ignite an information war over who is in fact responsible for the 295 lost lives. But, Finch says, “With the facilities that we have, we’ll be able to tell who fired it. We’ll be able to say where that missile came from.”

This article originally appeared on the New Republic. Click here.

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François Fillon's woes are good news for Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron

It is too late for the Republicans to replace their scandal-tainted candidate.

It's that time of the week again: this week's Le Canard Enchaîné has more bad news for François Fillon, the beleagured centre-right candidate for the French presidency. This week's allegations: that he was paid $50,000 to organise a meeting between the head of the French oil company Total and Vladimir Putin.

The story isn't quite as scandalous as the ones that came before it: the fee was paid to Fillon's (legitimate) consultancy business but another week with a scandal about Fillon and money is good news for both Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

The bad news for the Republicans is that Fillon is on the ballot now: there is no getting off the train that they are on. Destination: blowing an election that was theirs to be won.

Who'll be the ultimate beneficiary of the centre-right's misery? Although Macron is in the box seat as far as the presidential race is concerned, that he hasn't been in frontline politics all that long means that he could still come unstuck. As his uncertain performance in the first debate showed he is more vulnerable than he looks, though that the polls defied the pundits - both in Britain and in France - and declared him the winner shows that his popularity and charisma means that he has a handy cushion to fall back on.

It looks all-but-certain that it will be Macron and Le Pen who face each other in the second round in May and Macron will be the overwhelming favourite in that contest.

It's still just about possible to envisage a perfect storm for Le Pen where Fillon declares that the choice between Macron and Le Pen is a much of a muchness as neither can equal his transformative programme for France, Macron makes some 11th-hour blunder which keeps his voters at home and a terrorist attack or a riot gets the National Front's voters fired up and to the polling stations for the second round.

But while it's possible he could still come unstuck, it looks likely that despite everything we've thought these last three years, the French presidency won't swing back to the right in 2017.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.