WASHINGTON — From the start, the telephone call did not go well. Dispensing with pleasantries, President Vladimir Putin launched into an edgy and long-winded complaint about the new U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia the day before.
President Obama, on the phone from the Oval Office on Thursday morning, responded that Russia was arming rebels in Ukraine — citing, among other things, the anti-aircraft weapons that the United States believed they had been sent. “This is not something we’re making up,” Obama said, according to a U.S. official.
Then, more than halfway through the tense, hourlong call, Putin noted, almost in passing, that he had received a report of an aircraft going down in Ukraine.
Putin was vague about the details and the conversation moved on.
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But in that instant, the monthslong proxy war between East and West took a devastating turn, one that would shift the ground geopolitically amid the charred wreckage and broken bodies in a Ukrainian wheat field.
The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 rippled across continents, from Amsterdam where friends and family had just seen off their loved ones to the distant shores of Asia and Australia that had been waiting for 298 passengers and crew who would never show up. The tragedy reached as far as a college campus in Bloomington, Ind., shocked to find one of its doctoral students among the dead.
It was a day of confusion and anger, of grief and disbelief, of charges and countercharges, of politics and war. It was a day that brought home in vivid relief the consequences of a struggle in a torn society that had seemed far removed for many. And it was a day that was a long time in coming.
The flight took off from Amsterdam and headed east along a flight plan filed before departure. As it crossed over Ukraine, it cruised at an altitude of 33,000 feet, making sure to stay above a new minimum of 32,000 feet set just three days earlier so as to avoid any fighting on the ground or in the air. Some airlines had stopped traversing Ukraine altogether because of its violent insurgency in the east, but most had not.
New missile power
Until that week, pro-Russian separatists fighting in the east had been known to possess shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles known as Manpads, weapons that can typically fire to a maximum altitude of 12,000 feet.
But in the days before the doomed Malaysia Airlines flight, combatants had made clear they now had access to a weapon of a different magnitude, a radar-guided SA-11 that can deliver warheads at three times the speed of sound to a target as high as 70,000 feet.
On Monday, such a missile had brought down a Ukrainian Antonov-26 military transport plane flying at 21,000 feet, a feat requiring expertise and training that only a military could provide. U.S. intelligence agencies believe the missile came from the Russian side of the border, which Moscow denied. Separatists said they brought it down themselves.
Either way, Ukraine that same day set the 32,000-foot minimum for civilian airliners. Russia followed suit two days later. But no one banned passenger jets from the area despite the obvious change in the threat.
After the military plane was shot down Monday, fighting escalated. On Tuesday, a missile destroyed a residential building in Snizhne, a town 12 miles from the Russian border controlled by rebels. Ukraine said a Russian plane carried out the attack; the rebels blamed the Ukrainian military.
Whoever was responsible, a new air war was clearly under way. On Wednesday evening, Ukraine said Russia sent a MiG-29 fighter jet across the border to engage with Ukrainian Su-25s. In the ensuing dogfight, one Su-25 was shot down while another was damaged but escaped.
The shock was felt nearly as powerfully in Kuala Lumpur, where the Malaysian government and its people remain deeply traumatized from the mysterious disappearance of a flight en route to China in March. Prime Minister Najib Razak was at his personal residence when he was notified that Flight 17 had apparently gone down. He rushed to the Malaysia Airlines emergency response center at Kuala Lumpur’s airport and ordered his defense minister, foreign minister, aviation director and airline executives to meet him there.
“People were incredulous, but people weren’t emotional,” said a Malaysia official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the government’s response. “You looked at the faces around the room, and everyone had been battle-scarred from MH370.”
Putin was also in the air above Eastern Europe that afternoon, as he was returning from a six-day tour of Latin America aboard his presidential Airbus, referred to as Aircraft #1 by the media. The Russian jet apparently crossed paths near the doomed Malaysian plane, both flying in roughly the same airspace over Warsaw at 33,000 feet about 37 minutes apart, according to an Interfax report.
As soon as it became clear that the downed plane was not a military craft but a civilian passenger plane, Russian media shifted its explanation from a separatist attack to a variety of other explanations, including the possibility that Ukraine’s military shot it down.
Putin then released a statement 40 minutes after midnight blaming Ukraine. “Certainly,” he said, “the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy.”
Obama was on board his Marine One helicopter heading to Andrews Air Force Base when news broke that Ukraine was blaming a Russian-made missile. Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s senior adviser, received an email and told Obama about the allegation.
Once he boarded Air Force One, which was scheduled to take him to Delaware and New York for a policy speech and political fundraisers, Obama was briefed by his national security aide, Brian McKeon. By the time the president landed in Wilmington, it was clear he would need to address the disaster.
Once in New York, he headed to his first fundraiser at an upscale apartment. In a den, where a secure telephone line had been set up, Obama convened a telephone conference call with his staff for an update. He was told most of the dead were from the Netherlands and so arranged to call the Dutch prime minister.
The next morning, back at the White House, he was told that one American had been on board as well as AIDS researchers and activists heading to a conference that he himself had addressed two years earlier. He recognized that he had probably met some of them. “That seemed to kind of rattle him,” an aide said.
Crash site horror
As a cloudy morning dawned on Ukraine on Friday, the horror of the crash site was on full display. Small white pieces of cloth dotted the grassy farmland, marking the locations of bodies. The smell of burned flesh hung heavily near a broken hulk of metal on the road. A foot with part of a leg lay nearby.
The scene was strangely empty. There was no yellow tape, no investigators poring over the giant metal carcass. Four local rebels in fatigues and carrying hunting rifles wandered through the ruins, poking around the debris more out of curiosity. On the grass were photographs of a family vacation, a baby announcement postcard and a boarding pass.
One of the men, who had never seen a boarding pass, asked what it was. Another picked up an English-language tour book and flipped through it before throwing it back in the heap.
“I can’t read it anyway,” he said.