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 Barack 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.
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, Indiana, 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.
Cor Schilder had been looking forward to his vacation with his girlfriend. Two months ago, he posted pictures of an Indonesian resort on his Facebook page. “We will stay with a private pool with rose petals floating in it,” he wrote in Dutch on May 17. “We won’t leave before all those petals have withered away.”
A florist and amateur musician who played drums in a band called “Vast Countenance,” Schilder, 33, and his girlfriend, Neeltje Tol, 30, closed up their Amsterdam flower shop on Wednesday, leaving a sign saying they would reopen Aug. 4. As they passed through customs at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport the next day, Schilder kept updating his Facebook page.
“Mind your step, mind your step,” he wrote two hours before the flight, echoing the automated warning message of the airport’s horizontal escalator system.
Before boarding, he posted a picture of the plane, exactly the same model owned by the same airline as one that vanished mysteriously in March en route to China. “In case it goes missing,” he wrote wryly, “this is what it looks like.”
That may have been less amusing for a couple who were also passengers, Maree Rizk and her husband Albert, who lost relatives aboard the never-found Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Rizk’s stepmother’s brother and his wife were among those lost in March. The couple was returning home to Australia after a four-week vacation in Europe. “We thought it was unusual they would fly Malaysia because that earlier flight had gone down,” said Phil Lithgow, a friend.
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.
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.
Dramatic Shift in Battle
The missile strike that brought down the Malaysia flight was in many respects the result of a dramatic change in the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. After declaring unilateral cease-fires that failed to lead to meaningful negotiations, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, let the latest cease-fire lapse and ordered his military to resume efforts to crush the insurrection by force.
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 underway. 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.
A Ukrainian security official was complaining about the Russian incursion at a briefing Thursday around the same time Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was taking off from Amsterdam.
In eastern Ukraine several hours later, residents noticed what they presumed was a missile rocketing into the sky. U.S. intelligence analysts later traced the launch to an area around Snizhne and the nearby town of Torez. The plane came down in a series of large fields of wheat, grass and sunflowers, its fuselage and landing gear twisted into a mountain of metal, wires, engines and seats.
Bodies lying in the field struck strange, unnatural shapes in the tall grasses, many naked but for their shoes. Some were nestled together among piles of open suitcases, including a man in a mint-colored T-shirt lying near a woman in torn jeans whose right arm was thrown up over her head as if trying to protect herself. Others lay alone, like the tiny girl, probably no older than 3, dressed in a red T-shirt without pants.
The sight was overwhelming, even to rebels, who stood in stunned groups trying to comprehend. “I have four children,” said a miner named Sergei who said he found many bodies of children. “I’m in shock.”
New Shock in Malaysia
The shock was felt nearly as powerfully in Kuala Lumpur, where the Malaysian government and its people remain deeply traumatized from the March episode. 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.”
After bruising international criticism of the response to that catastrophe, Razak was determined to handle this one more smoothly. The last time he waited a week to make a public statement. This time he appeared before cameras within hours. Last time it took Malaysia Airlines six weeks to release a cargo manifest. This time it would take 36 hours.
In Moscow, the first news reports appeared around 6 p.m. local time as RIA-Novosti, a state-run agency, said the separatists — Russia’s press often refers to them as “volunteers” — had downed another Ukrainian Antonov-26 military transport plane.
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. The coincidental proximity of Putin’s plane even led to conspiracy theories that whoever destroyed the Malaysia jet was actually trying to target the Russian president. Rossiya 24, the state-run cable network, played past clips of Ukrainian public figures saying they wished Putin dead and then interviewed supposed experts about how the two planes might have been confused.
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 and the Disaster
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. Speechwriters at the White House emailed a statement to the plane.
Josh Earnest, Obama’s press secretary, gave him a copy and explained that a line about concern for Americans stemmed from reports that as many as 23 were on board. Earnest told the president that came from Ukrainian officials and seemed dubious. But even as Obama went before cameras and made his brief comments, Vice President Joe Biden got on the phone with Poroshenko, who told him the Ukrainians had intercepted conversations indicating the separatists had shot down the plane.
Obama was briefed by telephone after his speech by Antony J. Blinken, his deputy national security adviser, who told him about the Poroshenko call and so the president decided to call the Ukrainian leader as well as Razak from Air Force One. The flight to New York was so short, however, that pilots had to fly a long, looping route to give the president enough time to talk with the leaders.
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.
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.