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The Downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17: Russia in the Dock

Commentary, 18 July 2014
Did Russian rebels in Ukraine mistakenly shoot down the Malaysian airliner? Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to deny any responsibility, but at the very least his country bears a moral culpability for the episode, and Russia will pay a heavy diplomatic price for this tragedy.

Did Russian rebels in Ukraine mistakenly shoot down the Malaysian airliner?  Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to deny any responsibility, but at the very least his country bears a moral culpability for the episode, and Russia will pay a heavy diplomatic price for this tragedy.

Wreckage of flight MH17

As befits his previous intelligence training – albeit not at a very high rank – Russian President Vladimir Putin is a master of obfuscation, and clearly hopes to brazen out the crisis surrounding the destruction of Malaysian Airlines’ flight MH17 in the same manner he has dealt with many of his previous crises: by implying that Russia is not responsible, while at the same time giving nothing away which could be subsequently refuted by any evidence to the contrary which could emerge. ‘I want to note that this tragedy wouldn’t have occurred if there had been peace on this land’, Mr Putin told a hurried meeting of his country’s ministers yesterday, before adding that ‘of course, the government on whose territory this occurred is responsible’. Or, put slightly differently ‘who did it is less important than the fact that it happened, and it happened on someone else’s turf’.

Yet it is unlikely that Russia will be able to maintain this position much longer. For evidence into who supplied and operated the precision weapons used in shooting down the civilian airliner is sure to accumulate in the days to come. And, awkwardly for Mr Putin, evidence continues to mount that local rebels tied to Moscow were responsible for the destruction of the MH17 flight.

Civilian aircraft at a regular cruising altitude of 10 kilometres – as the MH17 was at the time when it was brought down, almost two hours into its flight out of Amsterdam in the Netherlands – are not easy targets. They cannot be hit by shoulder-held missiles or anti-aircraft artillery which are out of range, they are only vulnerable to precision weapons such as the BUK missile batteries which are in the Russian military service, but which were also supplied to all of Russia’s neighbours. And, while the BUK missiles are mobile and do have their own operating radar, they rely on more integrated radar systems to hit a faraway target like a civilian airliner.

Since these are only available to states rather than various rebels and since the fighting in Ukraine is not officially between governments, the assumption was that global civilian aviation was safe from the internal civil war which has disfigured this country since February. That is why neither national nor regional flight control agencies, nor bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation ever advised airlines to avoid fights over Ukraine; after all, no overflight ban is enforced over Afghanistan, a country which has experienced a decade of far bloodier military confrontations.

The Likely Culprits

What appears to have happened is that pro-Russian rebels mistakenly aimed at the MH17 flight, probably in the belief that it was a Ukrainian military transport jet of the kind they regularly attack. But it’s impossible to believe that they could have successfully hit their target without radar and other logistical support from the Russian military which, again, was probably unaware of the plane’s real identity. US intelligence agencies, which hold the largest quantity of electronic evidence available to piece together the final minutes of flight MH17, privately concede that this explanation is the most likely.

The race is on to collect as much evidence on the scene of the disaster as possible, and that would be the focus of the emergency UN Security Council debate which will take place today. But that, too, is easier said than done. For the area in which the MH17 place crashed is also one in which pro-Russian rebels operate, and some of them may now try to hide material evidence: there are persistent rumours in Ukraine that rebels have already spirited away key bits of evidence, such as the aeroplane’s ‘black box’ which records every action undertaken by the crew before the plane’s crash.

Still, incriminating evidence against Russia keeps popping up. Igor Strelkov, the Russian rebels’ commander in the area where the plane was hit, is on record as boasting about the downing of what he considered to be a Ukrainian aircraft at about the same time as the destruction of the MH17 flight. The Ukrainian authorities have also released a recording of a phone conversation between ethnic rebels and their patrons back in Moscow, in which they appear to admit to the destruction of the Malaysian Airways’ flight. But there is no independent confirmation of the accuracy of these recordings.

A Game Change

Within days, however, the real debate will shift from one about producing the right evidence and culprits, to more about what can be saved from the rapidly-deteriorating relations between Russia and the West.

The tragedy will stain Russia’s relations with the world for years to come. Nations determined to keep on good terms with Russia – such as China or Vietnam which relies on Russian weapon supplies and wishes these to continue - will keep quiet. And there will always be some plausible deniability, giving other countries enough room for manoeuvre to avoid accusing Russia directly for this disaster. But the culprits for the crime will be pursued by international investigators and tribunals. And many Russian officials will be added to the ‘wanted’ lists of police forces around the world. The story will linger, and won’t be pretty for Russian diplomats.

Given the fact that the majority of the victims are European citizens, it is also getting increasingly difficult to see how France would be able to deliver the Mistral ships which Russia ordered for its navy, or how Britain could continue shielding Russia from financial sanctions. And, given the fact that scores of US citizens were also killed on the MH17 flight means that the US Congress will demand greater sanctions on Russia, making any improvement in relations with Washington highly unlikely.

The MH17 tragedy has, therefore, the potential to be a game-changer. But the snag is that this could go in either direction: it could either force Russia to move to a quick compromise over Ukraine, or it could precipitate a more vicious round of fighting in Ukraine which escapes anyone’s control.

Putin could decide to stop supplying weapons to the rebels, and even remove some of the higher-edge hardware supplied to them. He may also consider accepting a mission by the OSCE which will observe the border between Ukraine and Russia, in order to prevent further supplies of weapons to the separatists in Ukraine. But that will entail Mr Putin eating a great deal of humble pie, by accepting that his gamble to support the creation of a separatist army which can be permanently be relied upon to do Russia’s bidding inside Ukraine had failed.

Given Putin’s past record, it’s much more likely that he will just decide to brazen out this crisis by pretending that it has nothing to do with him. Yet, try as hard as he may, there is no escape from the conclusion that the supposed master-tactician in the Kremlin has now ended up shooting himself in the foot, that a Ukraine crisis which Putin thought he could control is now escalating in ways he never imagined.


Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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