Global grief: flowers at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam in memory of the victims of flight MH17, 31 July. Photo: Getty
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David Patrikarakos: How the MH17 disaster turned a conflict global

The downing of Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region, was the deadliest aviation incident since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Central Kyiv is becoming a mausoleum. On 17 July, a surface-to-air missile shot down a Malaysian airliner en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. The photos, flowers and candles that were once confined to mourning the victims of February’s “Euromaidan Revolution” in Independence Square are now spreading. Outside the city’s Dutch embassy, yet more flowers, messages of condolence and – in memory of the many children who died on the plane – teddy bears are piling up, placed there by more weeping Ukrainians.

The downing of Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove, in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region, is the deadliest aviation incident since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Two-thirds of those killed were Dutch but people of a dozen different nationalities were on the flight. Ukraine’s crisis has gone global.

Given that the plane was shot down over rebel-held territory, the government in Kyiv unsurprisingly blamed the atrocity on pro-Russian separatists, a view that the initial evidence seemingly supported. Shortly after the shooting happened, Colonel Igor Strelkov, the self-appointed defence minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), posted a message on his VKontakte (the Russian version of Facebook) page. “In the area of Torez, we have just shot down an AN-26 airplane. It is scattered about somewhere by the Progress coal mine,” he wrote. “We warned them – don’t fly in our sky.”

Clearly Strelkov hadn’t yet realised that his “forces” had shot down a civilian aircraft and the post was deleted a few hours later. The DPR then launched a PR offensive, denying responsibility and claiming that it lacked the weaponry to shoot down a plane flying at 33,000 feet. Yet, on 29 June, the DPR’s official Twitter account had tweeted that it possessed a Buk anti-aircraft missile system, which has a range of 46,000 feet. This tweet was deleted after the MH17 crash.

US officials say there is little doubt that the plane was downed by a Buk (or SA-11) surface-to-air missile. The pro-Russian separatist fighters, they point out, have shot down more than a dozen aircraft over the past few months. Only Moscow could have given the separatists such sophisticated technology. For the first time in the conflict, Europe, the US and Ukraine are in full agreement: Vladimir Putin is to blame.

The Russian president’s responses have been accordingly frantic and he has refused to accept any responsibility. Russian television spent the days following the crash wheeling out “experts” of dubious credibility to put forward explanations for the downing that range from US conspiracy to Ukrainian aggression.

Still, the evidence implicating Russia-backed separatists keeps growing. On 18 July, the Ukrainian security services released audio recordings in which separatist leaders seemed to admit responsibility for the attack and demand, at Russia’s request, that the plane’s black boxes be removed from the crash site and hidden. (On 22 July, the rebels handed over the black boxes to Malaysian officials.)

If precedent is any guide, the downing of MH17 is a grave problem for the Kremlin. In 1983, a Russian fighter jet shot down a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 after it flew into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board. The incident provoked global outrage and strengthened the resolve of the then US president, Ronald Reagan, to defeat the “evil empire”. Once more, Russia’s activities have led to international condemnation. More sanctions, as well as the scrapping of a French deal to sell Moscow Mistral warships, are on the table. But Reagan is no longer in the White House and EU capitals are awash with – and reliant on – Russian cash.

The MH17 disaster is unquestionably a turning point in the conflict. The question is: in which direction? Greater international action against Russia will require a drastic change in EU and US policy and a willingness to sacrifice financial interests that has so far been lacking.

The immediate effect seems to be Ukraine’s increased determination to crush the separatists. On 18 July, I met the Ukrainian MP Lesya Orobets. “First of all, we have to declare a state of war on the DPR,” she told me. “We have to fight back now.” Three days later, the national army began to shell the Donetsk rebels’ stronghold, home to a million people.

Following the rebel retreat from Slavyansk in early July, Donetsk has been the last redoubt for DPR forces. It is here that the separatists vowed to make their final stand. The Ukrainian army looks likely to give them their wish.

See more:

The MH17 crash has hardened public opinion towards Russia (23 July 2014) 

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.