5 Must-Know Facts About Malaysian Airlines Flight 17

Jul 21, 2014 at 2:12 PM ET

Four days after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot out of the sky in eastern Ukraine, a few key details have emerged that shed some light on a tragic story complicated by a territorial battle between two countries.

U.S. officials believe the plane was likely shot down with an SA-11 surface-to-air missile launched from pro-Russian rebel-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. The American Embassy in Kiev has issued a statement saying separatists possessed an SA-11 as early as July 14. The plane was shot down on Thursday, killing all 298 passengers on board, many of them Dutch citizens.

Here are five things you should know about the plane crash and its aftermath.

1. The black boxes are in pro-Russian rebels’ hands.

UPDATE, 6:17 pm EST: The rebels have handed over the flight recorders to Malaysian government officials.

We heard three different theories on Friday about the whereabouts of the black boxes, including one that said Ukraine’s Emergency Service workers had them. Another widely circulated rumor, promoted by rebel leaders themselves, is that the flight recorders were being transported to Moscow. (Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his government would not take them, however.)

Under the third scenario, the self-appointed prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic—the breakaway region in eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels where the plane crashed—was saying that he would hand the black boxes over to international representatives when they arrived. (So far, they’ve had trouble reaching the crash site because of the gun-toting pro-Russian rebels controlling the area, as well as the renewed fighting between rebels and the Ukrainian military in nearby Donetsk and Luhansk.) The Malaysian prime minister said his people will pick up the boxes in Donetsk tonight.

2. After initially bragging about the plane crash on social media, rebels have shut up.

Speculation about who launched the missile that brought MH17 down has run rampant since the crash on Thursday. A page on the Russian social media site VKontakte attributed the act to Russian operative Igor Strelkov, who is leading the rebels in eastern Ukraine, and bragged about bringing down a plane on Thursday. Those posts have since been scrubbed. The State Security Service of Ukraine also says it has intercepted communications between pro-Russian rebels claiming responsibility for the crash, and it has posted audio on its website.

Social media focus seems to have now shifted from news of the crash to the current fighting in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels. The Ukrainian military has made a renewed assault in Donetsk, some 40 miles from the crash site, and at least three people have been killed.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared a ceasefire in a 24-mile radius around the crash site, and Donetsk is just outside of it. Social media outlets are flooded with content that is related to the current fighting, discussing updates of attacks and heavy shelling with pictures of fighting, wounded and dead people. There’s also a notable lack of posts on pro-Russian social media accounts about the crash after the initial bragging, aside from those that absolve Russian President Vladimir Putin (and Russia) of responsibility.

3. The U.S. says it has key evidence showing Russia’s involvement in the crash.

Secretary of State John Kerry made a full-court press on Sunday, appearing on all five major U.S. talk shows to discuss the crash and the extent to which it believes Russia is involved. “We have enormous input about this that points fingers [to Russia],” he said on CNN. He added, “Now we have a video showing a launcher moving back through a particular area [in Ukraine] out into Russia with at least one missing missile on it.” Russian tanks and artillery have been crossing the border into Ukraine for at least over one month.

This wouldn’t be the first plane that pro-Russian forces have brought down, though it would be the first civilian jet. Four Ukrainian military aircraft have been shot down in eastern Ukraine in the past month, killing many Ukrainian soldiers and flight crew.

4. The rebels are not handling the bodies of the victims with care.

Despite the fact that rebel leader Aleksander Borodai told NBC News they removed bodies from the crash site in order to be “humane,” all other accounts show that they are acting decidedly less so. Kerry ranted Sunday about drunken rebels loading bodies onto the back of trucks, and at least 196 bodies (out of the total of 298) were loaded onto refrigerated train cars by rebels and reportedly directed to Kharkiv, a city under Ukrainian control in the east.

Also, Borodai’s comment about removing the bodies from the crash site so they didn’t sit in the summer heat is slightly compromised by the fact that the bodies remained out in the open air overnight to begin with—because the rebels wouldn’t allow international workers to access them. Passenger remains were outside after the crash for three to four days while some rebels looted their possessions, according to reports from the scene. “All of which begs the question: What exactly are they trying to hide?” President Obama said in a press conference Monday.

In the past few months, rebels in eastern Ukraine have loaded the remains of their dead colleagues onto refrigerated trucks and sent them to Moscow.

5. The crash may have scuttled Russia’s plans to try to invade or annex eastern Ukraine.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, many thought Putin’s next acquisition target would be the rebel-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine. But despite requests from rebel leaders for Russia to politically support referenda for independence in the region, Putin ignored or backed away from the calls publicly.

In recent weeks, though, Russia has been slowly rebuilding its troop numbers on the border with Ukraine. According to the Financial Times, NATO officials were speculating that Putin wanted to invade in August or September, either before or after a key NATO summit. According to the NATO speculation, the excuse for sending Russian troops over the border would be the “humanitarian crisis” occurring for the people of eastern Ukraine (caused by rebel-led fighting).

Now that 298 innocent civilians have been killed and the entire world is watching Russia, Putin will have to think twice about ordering troop movements. But that’s not stopping him from holding a “territorial integrity and sovereignty” meeting with the Kremlin security council this week.