Well, I tried to avoid writing about this topic until more hard facts became available. But since this is apparently turning into a political fight between, on one side, Russia and Egypt and, on the other, the US and UK, I think that I can at least offer a few general thoughts.
What we know so far is this: Kogalymavia Flight 9268 had left Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport, Egypt, en route to Pulkovo Airport in Saint Petersburg. The aircraft reached an altitude of 33,500 ft (10,200 m) at 404 kn (748 km/h; 465 mph). Then something absolutely catastrophic happened. The pilots did not radio anything at all, the plane dropped and crashed. The tail section was found 5km away from the rest of the plan. Just from that data we can come to some initial conclusions: this was not a “regular” mechanical failure (like, say, an engine fire) but something which happened so fast that the pilots did not even have the time to react. The aircraft broke up in mid-air. Only three things could have caused this:
- A sudden and catastrophic structural failure
- A anti-aircraft missile
- A bomb inside the aircraft
The first option is possible, and there are reports that the tail had a crack in the back. Other reports mention that the aircraft was involved in an tailstrike 14 years ago. However, this aircraft was inspected, several times, the tailstrike incident was recorded and the long term dangers of tailstrikes are also well known. So the possibility of a catastrophic structural failure is sound.
The second option makes no sense to me at all. I know of no man portable or even SUV-mounted missile which could strike an aircraft flying at over 10km high and at over 700km/h. As for a bigger missile, well, we would have the same problem as with MH-17, only worse: not only would such a larger missile leave a visible plume, and make a very loud noise but, unlike in the Ukraine, in the Egyptian desert the missile launcher and crew would have nowhere to hide after the launch. In fact, even getting such a large missile into the crash area would be very difficult: just like the Ukraine, Egypt is a war zone and there are a lot of “eyes in the sky”. Finally, unless the missile can acquire an infra-red signature at 10km altitude, it would have to be cued to the aircraft by radar and that emission would also be detectable. I cannot prove a negative, and I suppose one ought never to say never, but I don’t buy the missile hypothesis at all.
Which leaves the bomb. To my great regret, this is the version which I find most plausible, if only by Occam’s razor. No offense to anybody here, but the Egyptian security services don’t exactly have an impressive track of protecting tourists. And while it is clear to me that the US and UK are trying to capitalize on this tragedy, I would note that Medvedev just publicly ordered the Russian security services to provide point security in airport terminal were Russian aircraft take off from. Could it be that the Russian security services have already come to the same conclusion as the Brits and Americans?
So it boils down to this: what is more likely – a massive sudden structural failure or a bomb. I believe that the latter is much more likely.
Still, we really should wait for the official report. “Much more likely” does not mean that this is what happened. It is “much more likely” that a coin will fall heads or tails, but sometimes they do end up standing on the edge. There have been tailstrike induced catastrophic failures in the past, and the Kogalymavia airline was facing some financial difficulties, so maybe maintenance was less than stellar.
So what if it really was Daesh which blew up Flight 9268?
Horrible as this may sound, I don’t think that this is very significant, at least not on a political level.
First, Russian officials have always said that the terrorist threat for Russia was real. As soon as the Russian military operation in Syria began, officials were asked whether this would not dramatically increase the risks of terrorist attacks against Russian. Their answer was always the same one: “we already are under maximal threat, this does not make it worse“. This is forgotten in the West, but Russia is still battling a terrorist insurgency in Dagestan. Wahabi crazies are regularly arrested even in Moscow! The anti-terror war for Russia has never stopped and the intervention in Syria is just one more episode of a war which really began following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Yes, this is an immense human tragedy, but it is no worse than Budennovsk or the Nord-Ost episode. Russian expect no less from the shaitans they have been fighting for decades now.
Second, the fact that Daesh had to strike abroad indirectly indicates that they did not have the means to strike inside Russia. Again, one should never say never, but the FSB-protected Russia is a tough one to crack for the Wahabi crazies.
Third, while I would not put it past the Egyptians to lie in their report (they really have a lot to lose!), I don’t think that the Russian officials will lie about the cause of this crash. This is too high visibility a case and, unlike the “Kursk”, this is not a military or national-security matter. The risks of attempting a cover-up much outweigh the potential benefits. Simply put: unlike the Egyptians, the Russians have no imperative reasons to lie (and that is not to say that I suspect the Egyptians of lying; I am only saying that they have much bigger motive to do so than the Russians).
Fourth, regardless of what the final report will say in a couple of months, the Egyptians will pay a huge economic price in lost income as there will always remain a suspicion about what happened. Even if the Egyptian security services did nothing wrong, and even if the final report fully clears Egypt from any wrongdoing, the panic induced by this precedent (fueled by US and UK statements) will badly hurt Egypt. In that sense, Daesh has already greatly benefited from this tragedy.
All of the above leads me to a paradoxical conclusion: whatever the final report will say, it will make very little difference to the situation on the ground. The damage has been done and there is nothing which will undo it.