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

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.