WASHINGTON — Russia has shown no sign of backing off its shipments of arms to separatists in Ukraine despite allegations that the rebels shot down a civilian airline with weapons provided by Russia, according to three senior intelligence officials.
As recently as Tuesday, Russia sent rebels another 20 tanks to separatists, the officials said. The information came from Ukraine's government but is consistent with independent U.S. intelligence assessments, they said. They added that the Ukraine Security and Defense Council concluded that separatists in one city, Luhansk, had received tanks, surface missiles and vehicles from Russia this week.
The intelligence officials briefed reporters Tuesday to counter Russia's and separatists' denials of involvement. The officials spoke on the condition they not be identified by name so they could discuss intelligence issues.
Russia and the separatists claim a Ukrainian military aircraft may have shot down the airliner, sending all 298 aboard to their deaths.
The officials said they haven't reached a definitive conclusion, but strong circumstantial evidence continues to point to the rebels. They said Russia has provided arms and training, including instruction in the use of surface-to-air missiles.
The officials said the intelligence community is confident in its detection of a surface-to-air missile launch from rebel-held territory at the time the Malaysia Airlines flight was hit.
YouTube video later showed an SA-11 missile launcher minus at least one missile that appeared to be leaving the region, traveling through the rebel-held territories of Torez and Snizhne.
The officials said the video appears to be authentic, as does a transcript of an audio of separatists talking about hitting a Ukraine military transport aircraft at the time the Malaysia Airlines plane was struck.
The officials say they still don't know definitively who pulled the trigger or why, though they said it was likely a mistaken effort to down a Ukrainian plane. They also could not prove direct Russian involvement.
The officials said the rebels had been firing frequently at Ukrainian aircraft, having downed about a dozen Ukrainian military aircraft over the past several months. Many of those aircraft were flying at low altitude and were hit by ground fire.The Malaysia Airlines aircraft was flying at more than 30,000 feet.
The officials said they believe the rebel anti-aircraft campaign and increase in Russian support was in response to success the Ukrainian military was having against the rebels.
They said it was implausible that the Ukrainian military hit the commercial airliner. The Ukrainian government also has SA-11s but has not used anti-aircraft systems against the rebels because the separatists do not present an air threat, the officials said.
Russian support for the rebels is continuing, the officials said. They said the Ukraine Security and Defense Council concluded that separatists in Luhansk had received tanks, surface missiles and vehicles from Russia this week.