Given that MH17 was reportedly flying at 33,000 feet when it was shot down, such an attack would indeed represent a major feat for a nonstate actor. There are historical precedents for civilian aircraft being shot down by missiles, but one reason it’s a relatively rare occurrence is that the necessary capabilities tend to be under the control of governments. “There aren’t that many insurgent groups that have that kind of a capability,” says Max Abrahms, a terrorism specialist and professor of political science at Northeastern University.

“But in this case, it actually makes sense” that an insurgent group shot down the plane, he says. States may as a general rule have better weapons than insurgent groups, but “really that power asymmetry goes out the window when the nonstate actor has strong backing from a government. Particularly from a government as weaponized as Russia.”