DONETSK, Ukraine — Russian generals dismissed Ukrainian and U.S. accusations that Moscow-backed separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week. Instead they offered several theories intimating Kiev and Washington were responsible at an eerie Cold War-style press conference on Monday, aired on state TV. The defiant tone — struck in the face of mounting international criticism — suggests the Kremlin is prepared for further global confrontation over the downing of the Boeing 777, which killed all 298 on board.
The generals demonstrated their findings in a war room with a "big board" much like the one in Stanley Kubrick's satirical masterpiece Dr. Strangelove.
With their voices booming over loudspeakers around an empty roundtable as crude graphics whirred on a massive screen behind them, the generals offered a version of the plane's last few minutes wildly at odds with the evidence provided by the Ukrainian and U.S. governments. Andrei Karatolov, a deputy air force general, laid out several, often conflicting, scenarios that he claimed showed Ukraine could have been responsible for the plane's crash.
As Flight MH17 flew over the conflict zone east of Donetsk, Karatolov said, it was shadowed by a Ukrainian fighter plane about two miles south. The Boeing then strayed about 10 miles north of its intended route and attempted to return before disappearing.
Kartapolov said that the Ukrainian fighter, which he assumed to be an Su-25, was flying at the same height as the Boeing and had air-to-air missiles capable of downing it at that range.
The generals also showed satellite photos that they said proved Ukraine had several surface-to-air missile complexes active in range to shoot down the plane, contrary to Kiev's claims.
Though Kartapolov did not say outright that Ukraine downed Flight MH17, his evidence, which completely contradicts everything hitherto said by Ukraine and the U.S., was clearly meant to reinforce rising Russian sentiment that Western countries have been too quick to blame Moscow. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials attempted to shift blame away from the rebels — without ruling out the possibility that they had shot down the plane.
Putin then made an unusual video address early on Monday in which he implied Western countries were using the crash for their own "narrow-minded political goals."
Angrily rejecting U.S. and Ukrainian claims that Moscow supplied the rebels with a surface-to-air missile system used to shoot down the plane, the Russian generals have countered with what essentially amount to conspiracy theories. A list of 10 questions compiled by Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov referred to tweets supposedly from a Spanish air traffic controller in Kiev who claimed that Flight MH17 was escorted by two Ukrainian fighters — despite Spain's assertion that no such person actually exists.
Kartapolov went one step further by intimating the U.S. helped shoot down the plane with an experimental rocket-tracking satellite that he said flew over Ukrainian airspace just before the crash. "Coincidence or no, the time of the crash matches the time the satellite flew over," he said. Kartapolov demanded that the U.S. turn over images from the satellite that intelligence officials say helped them identify the surface-to-air missile that shot down the plane. "Nobody has seen these images," he said.
He then said that images Ukraine had claimed showed rebels hurriedly moving the missile system back to Russia were actually taken in a city under Ukrainian control since May. "They're obviously mixing and matching their material," he added.
Kartapolov appeared to have taken the supposed debunking of the Ukrainian video from posts that spread on Russian social media over the weekend. Other internet sleuths have used open-source information to pick numerous holes in the Russian version of events.
Russian media has been awash in recent days with experts denying the rebels had the ability to shoot down the plane and conspiracy theories intimating that the crash was a Western plot to smear Moscow. One suggests that Ukraine was trying to shoot down Putin's personal jet when it flew nearby the Malaysian jetliner. Another popular explanation holds that Flight MH17 used the jet from another Malaysian Airlines flight that vanished in March, filled it with corpses, and blew it up over Ukraine to blame Russia and the rebels without even using a surface-to-air missile.
"Instead the plane was packed with a bomb, just like the CIA did on 9/11."