Whether a terrorist attack related to Moscow’s foreign policy, a technical glitch or human error, the primary theories on how a Russian airliner crashed in Egypt this past weekend pose uncomfortable questions for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s polices at home and abroad.
Wreckage in the desert. Flowers on the streets. Russia is in mourning, and its people by and large have the world’s sympathy following the crash of Kogalymavia Flight 9268 on Saturday. Eight million people fly a day; over 3 billion a year. One need not be a member of the jet set to empathize with victims of a plane crash. Most have experienced panic on a particularly turbulent ride. Around one in five people suffer from Aviophobia — the fear of flying. Columnist Alex Preston called flying “a magnet for our vulnerability, for our fear of death, for our existential panic.”
In Fight Club, the narrator, expresses his death wish through flying, praying for a crash or mid-air collision “ever time the plane banked too sharply on take-off or landing.”
For a man seemingly being killed by the modern age, he wanted to end it all in the most modern of ways. Most of us, of course, feel the exact opposite. That’s why plane crashes, more than mudslides, train derailments and possibly even war, always seem to capture the public’s attention— almost viscerally so.
So far, we know that the Metrojet plane’s fuselage disintegrated in the air over Egypt, leading to the deaths of all 224 passengers and crew on board. State media has released aerial footage of the wreckage spewed over an area of 20 square kilometers.
It remains too soon to say why this happened, though many appear curiously certain of what did not happen. Those theories which would potentially cast a dark shadow over Moscow have seemingly being downplayed from the get go. Sadly, like MH17, which was shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile over Eastern Ukraine on July 16, 2014, the Kremlin may have a vested interest in muddying the waters.
‘Not technical, not terrorism’
On Monday, Aleksandr Smirnov, Metrojet’s deputy director for aviation, categorically excluded that technical failure or pilot error led to the crash.
“The only possible explanation is a mechanical force acting on the aircraft. There is no combination of system failures that could have broken the plane apart in the air,” Smirnov told Russia’s state-funded RT.
For the layperson, mechanical force means external force; something outside the plane. So was it a terrorist strike?
An Egyptian rebel group affiliated with the so-called Islamic State (IS) wanted the world to believe as much. But both Russian and Western officials have caste doubts on claims militants in the region were in possession of sophisticated enough weaponry to down a plane flying at 31,000 feet.
US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was unwilling to rule out IS involvement, though he said such an attack was unlikely, adding “We don’t have any direct evidence of any terrorist involvement yet.”
Other security experts have theorized that a bomb had been smuggled onboard. On Monday, however, an anonymous source in Cairo told Russia’s state-owned Ria-Novosti news service that no traces of explosives had been discovered in the debris of the downed Airbus A321. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, he stressed that the investigation into the cause of the crash would take a significant amount of time.
Smirnov himself seemed to shy away from outright saying the plane was brought down as the result of a terrorist plot, though he admitted that “anything was possible.”
The chief of Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency, told Rossiya 24 television on Monday that Smirnov’s statement was “premature” and not founded on “any real facts.”
So far, it appears that the four primary theories: technical failure, human error, bomb on board or missile strike will likely prove uncomfortable for the powers that be.
All point back in one way or another either to Putin’s system of rule at home, or his recent foreign policy decisions.
Foreign policy blowback?
Russia’s military intervention in Syria always entailed risks.
In October, Alexander Kumanyayev, head of the federal security service’s directorate in Ingushetia, told Reuters it could be assumed “that the leaders of al-Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations will try to take retaliatory measures” in response to Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria.
IS has on multiple occasions threatened Russia due to its support for the government of Bashar al-Assad. So what if, via bomb or rocket, Flight 9268 was downed as retribution for Russia’s first military campaign outside of the post-Soviet sphere since the war in Afghanistan?
Such a scenario does not bode well for the televised version of events, where Russia is gloriously putting IS on its heals in a one-sided fight epitomizing the country’s renewed military glory. The one Russian military death to have occurred in Syria was suspiciously written off as a suicide. If the Russian propaganda machine cannot stomach the death of one servicemen (possibly at the hands of his own comrades), then the death of 224 holiday makers would be pure anathema.
What’s more, the thought of terrorists shooting down a Russian passenger plane over an area deemed to be a security risk just over a year after Moscow was implicated in the same sort of attack does not bode well for the Russian psyche. ‘The pain we feel now, our government caused for others,’ or so the logic could go. Although the Russian state propaganda machine has already created so much confusion in that regard, the Kremlin is likely safe from the possibility of its citizens connecting those dots any time soon.
‘Human error, systemic failure’
Meanwhile, the other scenarios (pilot error, technical failures, or a combination of both), would represent a far more systemic indictment of the Putin regime. After all, if worse comes to worse, it’s one thing to cut and run from a foreign land. It’s quite another to skirt the ‘you break it, you own it’ principle in your own country.
And when it comes to public safety and infrastructure, Russia is in many ways broken.
Citing the International Air Transport Association, Natalia Antonova wrote this past January “that flying a commercial airline in Russia is about four times as dangerous as the world average.”
A recent rundown of Russia’s more recent airline tragedies presents a terrible combination of both technical failure and human error.
Christophe de Margerie, a former-CEO of the French oil company Total, was killed when a drunken snowplow driver crashed into his plane at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport in October 2014. De Margerie, incidentally, was a strong advocate of Russian interests.
Eleven months prior, Tatarstan Airlines Flight 363 crashed at Kazan International Airport, killing all 44 passengers and 6 crew members on board (including the son of the Republic’s president and the head of Tatarstan’s Federal Security Service (FSB) regional office.)
And in December 2012, a Russian airliner (without passengers) fell apart after sliding off the runway at Vnukovo, killing four of the eight crew members on board.
Then there was the staggering tragedy of September 7, 2011, when a plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team struck a tower mast and crashed on the riverbank of the Tunoshna River, killing 44 people. As Antonov noted, the pilots in that case had obtained permission to fly using falsified paperwork; the copilot had phenobarbital in his system.
Perhaps UTair passengers got off lucky when they were merely forced to push their own plane down the tarmac after the aircraft’s brake pads reportedly froze in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk region last November.
But civilians aren’t the only ones at risk when taking to the skies. Earlier this year, half-a-dozen Russian military aircraft crashed in a month’s time. Around the same time, barracks collapsed in Omsk; a residential building collapsed in Perm. Forget about NATO and external enemies, in many ways Russia has nothing to fear but Russia itself.
It is not for a lack of technical expertise or material wealth that is causing Russia’s woes. It is a system of corruption, a lack of accountability, a trail of falsified paperwork, a public, who despite every overt display of patriotism, have been taught to cut corners at every turn to make it in Putin’s Russia.
When a censor is installed on a Proton Rocket upside down, hammer it in to make it fit. Sentence the deputy head of an airliner to five years in prison for knowingly allowing sub-par pilots to take a local hockey teams’s lives into unqualified hands, only to amnesty him and expunge his record before he ever spends a day behind bars.
If a vibrating turbine sets off red flags, as it did at the Sayano–Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station before an accident killed 75 people in 2009, try and fix it, but if not, keep the show on the road. As Victor Borovsky, former general director of the Russian power company Irkutskenergo said at the time, investment, maintenance and safety cutbacks to maximize profits laid the foundations for the accident. Which to say, it was preventable, but prevention proved too costly.
It appears that whenever anythings falls apart in Russia, the first question is: Where did the money go? In most cases, that question is asked rhetorically. Corruption is not a byproduct of doing business in Russia, it is the modus operandi. Every time a building falls, a dam breaks, a plane plummets from the sky, even the most dyed-in-the-wool patriot knows why. And this knowledge deeply undermines faith in the system.
Regarding Flight 9268, The Telegraph reports that Metrojet staff was owed two months in backpay, with at least two serious accidents being reported in the last five years. Far from promising signs.
What’s more, Natalya Trukhacheva, identified as the wife of co-pilot Sergei Trukachev, told State-controlled NTV that her husband had previously complained about the condition of the aircraft. Aviation Publication Flight Global noted that the Airbus A321 “suffered a hard tail strike” upon landing at Cairo International Airport on November 16, 2001, ”causing “serious” damage. Was the plane thereinafter structurally compromised?
Looking at the high air disintegration, many experts believe either a bomb or explosive decompression were likely responsible for bringing the plane down to earth in pieces over such a wide area. So pick your poison: terrorism or technical failure. External attack or internal rot.
Whatever light analysis of the plane’s black boxes shed on the crash, there are many within the Kremlin who will hope that the public remains in the dark over the latest tragedy to afflict Russian aviation. And for those who lost loved ones, no matter the outcome of the investigation, be it transparent or opaque, dark days most certainly lie ahead.