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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder