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.

Global grief: flowers at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam in memory of the victims of flight MH17, 31 July. Photo: Getty
Global grief: flowers at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam in memory of the victims of flight MH17, 31 July. Photo: Getty

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) 

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