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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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.