Airport groundstaff walk past Malaysia Airlines planes parked on the tarmac at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on June 17, 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Malaysia Airlines passenger jet crashes in eastern Ukraine

Airliner crashes with 298 people on board.

This story has been updated - see below.

A Boeing-777 jetliner with 295 people on board has crashed in eastern Ukraine near the village of Grabovo, near the border with Russia, according to Reuters. Eyewitnesses in the area claim that it was shot down by a ground-to-air missile, but as of yet this is unconfirmed.

The flight, Malaysia Airlines 17, was five hours into a journey from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Russian news agency Interfax broke the news, which was later confirmed by other sources, including a Reuters journalist on the ground who has reported "burning wreckage and bodies on the ground". Despite the claims that the plane was shot down, nobody has come forward to take responsibility. 

The Ukrainian government has said that its military did not fire at the plane, while blaming "terrorists" and pro-Russian separatists. The president of Malaysia, Mohd Najib Tun Razak, has said that an investigation has been opened into the incident. Russia president Vladimir Putin and US president Barack Obama were reportedly in the middle of a phone conversation when news of the crash emerged.

Other airlines have reported that their planes will avoid the airspace over eastern Ukraine. This is the second incident involving a Malaysia Airlines flight this year, after the disappearance of Flight MF370 in March.

UPDATE [18/07/2014 - 10:55am]: The airline has clarified that there were 298 passengers on MH17. Three small infants were not included in the original count.

A full passenger list has not been released yet, but it is understood that 173 Dutch nationals, 27 Australians, 44 Malaysians, 12 Indonesians and nine Britons were on the flight, with 15 of the Malaysian nationals making up the flight's crew. More than a hundred of those on board were heading to Australia for the 20th International Aids in Melbourne, Australia - the global HIV/Aids research and prevention community is in shock and mourning.

The plane crashed in territory currently held by pro-Russian separatists from the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, and there are unconfirmed reports that one of its militia groups has recovered a black box recorder from the crash site and intends to hand it over to Moscow for analysis. An official Ukrainian government rescue group has recovered the other black box from another part of the site. The separatists have issued a statement via the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to say they will "close off the site of the catastrophe and allow local authorities to start preparations for the recovery of bodies", and provide access to and cooperation with national and international investigation teams.

Both the separatists and the Ukrainian government have blamed each other for shooting down MH17. The Ukrainian authorities have released what it claims is intercepted telephone conversations between separatist militia leaders and soldiers discussing shooting down a plane in the area and at the time that MH17 crashed. 

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”