Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters today that more than 24 hours after a passenger airliner was downed with a Russian-made surface-to-air missile they don’t have any operational theories on what was behind the takedown.
“I don’t think we have a working theory at this point… I mean, this just happened yesterday,” Kirby said. “There’s teams of investigators now trying to get to the site and pore through this. And I mean, we just have to let them do their job.”
It was one of the few press briefings on the Malaysia Airlines attack at which questions were taken, as press secretary Josh Earnest’s daily briefing was canceled by the White House around noontime.
“We see strong evidence that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was hit by a surface-to-air missile at an altitude of about 33,000 feet and that the missile was launched from a location near the border that is controlled by Russian separatists. This incident obviously occurred in the context of a conflict fueled by Russian support for Ukrainian — or for these Russian separatists and that support has — and that support has included arms, materiel and training,” Kirby said.
“As we investigate who did this and why, this terrible tragedy underscores for Russia to take immediate and concrete steps to deescalate the crisis in Ukraine and support the Ukrainian government’s plan for a ceasefire and peace settlement.”
Kirby said they see see “no hint that Russian support for the separatists has ceased.”
“In fact, we believe that Russia continues to provide them with heavy weapons and other military equipment, financing as well. And they continue to allow these Russian fighters to enter Ukraine freely,” he said. “There have been — as you know, we’ve acknowledged that some tanks, some personnel vehicles have — have made their way across the border. It is a — it has been a steady, concerted campaign by Russia’s military to continue to support and resource, advise these separatists.”
Kirby said they didn’t have any specific information corroborating reports that a Buk system was seen being hustled back across the Russian border missing two missiles.
“The missile itself, the SA-11, which is the one we believe was used to down Flight 17, is a sophisticated piece of technology,” the admiral said. “And it is — it — it strains credulity to think that — that it could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance.”
“I don’t have an indication now that a system was brought over. And we don’t exactly know who is responsible for firing that missile, or with — or with what assistance. What I’m saying is that that system is fairly sophisticated,” Kirby added. “…Nobody is suggesting that the Russian military advice and assistance has not somehow crossed the border. It is just unclear exactly how much and when and who. That is what the investigators are going to look at and that is what we need to let them do.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel conferred by phone today with Malaysian Minister of Defense Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, whose step-grandmother was among the passengers killed.
Kirby said they’re still keeping an eye on “roughly still about 10,000 to 12,000” Russian troops at the Ukrainian border.
“And it fluctuates a little bit from week to week, but the point is that it has been a — over time, a steady increase of these combined arms tactical battalions across the border on the Russian side, but to the southeast of Ukraine. And they are close to the border. In many cases, closer than those forces who were more aligned right on the east. If you remember we had, you know, tens of thousands that were along the eastern border with Ukraine, but not as close as these units appear to be,” he said.
“All they’re doing is further escalating tension. It’s difficult to know what the intent is. That’s a question you should ask the Russian ministry of defense. But they’re there. They’re growing in size week by week, and they continue to just do nothing more than escalate the tension.”
He said various government agencies would likely be participating in an international investigation of the takedown, but “I have no expectation right now that there’ll be a DOD representative on this team.”
Kirby said the Pentagon continue to review Ukrainian requests for military assistance.
So far, they’ve received MREs, radios, body armor, individual first aid kits, sleeping mats, and uniform items to battle Putin’s army and militia.
“Over the next few months, additional items will start moving through the procurement process to include night vision goggles, thermal imagers, Kevlar helmets, explosive ordnance disposal robots, and some additional radios. And there’s been some other equipment given to Ukraine’s border guards — barbed wire, alarm systems, excavators, trucks, generators, that kind of thing — communications gear,” he said. “…I think I’ve said it before that they have requested a lot of material, some of it lethal in nature. But the focus has been and remains on the non-lethal side of the assistance.”
When asked if they were withholding lethal aid to avoid stoking tensions with Russia, Kirby replied, “Look, I mean, I’m not going to get into hypothetical here. The concern is that the territorial integrity of Ukraine has been violated and continues to be violated by its neighbor in Russia and that needs to stop.”