The Guardian view on the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine

Could this tragedy lead to new thinking in Moscow and Kiev and bring about fresh negotiations?
The Guardian | 18 July 2014

The burnt out wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 near Donetsk, Ukraine. Photograph: ITAR-TASS/Barcroft Media

Wars always take the lives of the innocent, but there are certain terrible incidents which suddenly dramatise the iniquity of what is going on, demanding investigation and the assignment of blame. The sinking of the Lusitania off Ireland in 1915, the downing of an Iranian airliner in the Gulf by the USS Vincennes in 1988, and the Amiriyah shelter bombing in Baghdad in 1991 are sad examples from the past.

The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine belongs in this category. The lives of nearly 300 people were snuffed out in one vicious moment by men on the ground who were too careless, too inexperienced or too stupid to hold their fire while they checked on the identity of the aircraft in their sights. These were people who had nothing to do with the conflict over which the trajectory of their plane was taking them, and some of them, like the Aids experts on board, followed careers specifically devoted to the saving of lives.

This should be a moment for shame, for reflection, and for reconsideration. But, of course, what we have instead is a rush to avoid responsibility, a flood of disinformation, and a chorus of denials. The pro-Russian rebels say it was not their doing, in spite of much circumstantial evidence that it was. President Vladimir Putin, slyly skirting the question of where the arms and munitions sustaining the rebels are coming from, says that the fault must lie with the state over whose territory the incident occurred, thus blaming the Ukrainian government for the hostilities in the eastern part of that country while making no mention of his own continued military meddling in the same region. Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, says that the crash should be investigated as "an act of terrorism". That seems tendentious since, by definition, terrorist acts have to be intentional, and nothing about the fate of the Malaysian plane suggests that those who shot it down intended or wanted to kill civilians.

The first requirement must be for an unfettered investigation, with an immediate local ceasefire to allow experts access to the crash site, and the return of any instrumentation that may have been taken from the wreckage. There are formal rules for the investigation of air crashes and this is a case where they must be followed to the letter. But the world does not have to wait for the outcome of what may be a lengthy inquiry to pay urgent attention again to the crisis which led to this tragedy.

Other emergencies have in recent weeks obscured the fact that the conflict in eastern Ukraine has not been winding down since Mr Poroshenko became president, as some had hoped, but has been getting worse, as Ukrainian forces have tried to take rebel strongholds and the rebels, with assistance from over the border, have fought back. Heavier weapons, higher casualties and increased Russian troop levels have been the result. Earlier in the week, the United States and the EU increased sanctions on Russia. These are still relatively limited, but that could change if Russia obstructs the inquiry or if there is new evidence of Russian support for the rebels. Certainly, Russian behaviour will now be under greater scrutiny.

But what is more likely is that this tragedy will lead to a reduction in hostilities, at least for a while. Could such a reduction prove permanent? Neither the Ukrainian nor the rebel side will want to be seen as rushing to resume the fighting. In Moscow, presumably, they will want to sit back and consider what they should do with separatist groups in Ukraine which look to them for support but are not easy to control. It is possible that the military phase of the struggle over Ukraine was in any case moving toward an end. On the Ukrainian side, the danger of more civilian casualties tended to constrain further escalation while, on the Russian side, the limits of what could be done to help the rebels while preserving a degree of deniability and preventing further rounds of sanctions were becoming evident.

As ground-to-air missiles brought down Ukrainian military planes this last week, there may well have been a sense on both sides that the fight was getting too big. The downing of the Malaysian airliner will reinforce that view, so we may see an emphasis on the negotiating track. But it would be foolish to believe that an end to the basic conflict is in sight. The US and the EU want to preserve and extend their influence in Ukraine, and so does Russia, and there are many ways it can use its leverage, particularly its economic leverage, to do so. The middle way, a way which would allow Ukraine to look both east and west, has been crushed between these millstones. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that the shock of this outrage could now provide an opportunity for new thinking.


MH17: rebels block access to part of site of crash as evidence against them grows
First OSCE investigators to the scene retreat after hour-long standoff with armed separatists who fired warning shots
Shaun Walker in Kiev, Harriet Salem in Grabovo, Dan Roberts in Washington and Philip Oltermann in Amsterdam
The Guardian | 18 July 2014

A pro-Russia fighter holds up a toy found among the debris at the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines jet, where OSCE investigators were denied access. Photograph: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

President Barack Obama threatened to "increase the costs" on Russia if Moscow fails to deescalate the situation in Ukraine, as US and other western officials said there was mounting evidence that a missile fired by Russia-backed separatists downed the Malaysia Airlines jet which crashed in eastern Ukraine on Thursday.

All sides have called for a thorough and impartial investigation into what caused the crash, which killed all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board MH17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. However, the first group of international investigators on the scene were involved in a tense standoff with the armed separatists who control the crash site at Grabovo.

A unit of heavily armed rebels blocked the 30-strong team from the OSCE, cordoning off a large part of the crash site. The inspectors retreated after an hour-long standoff, having been unable to gain access. They were sent on their way by warning shots fired by the rebel unit commander.

"We will keep coming back tomorrow and the next day and the next day," said spokesman Michael Bociurkiw. "Tomorrow will be a crunch day. There are a lot of experts from the Netherlands and Malaysia gathering in Kiev as well as relatives. The bodies are starting to bloat and decay. An expert team is clearly needed. There is a lot to be done in a short amount of time."

In Washington, Obama called for a full, impartial investigation and said the tragedy should cause people to "snap their heads together" and stop playing games in Ukraine. In veiled criticism of the lack of European support for US-led economic sanctions against Russia, Obama said the loss of so many European lives should serve as a "wake-up call" for Europe.

Obama said while it was too early to be completely sure who was responsible and what their motives were, the US was sure that a missile fired from within territory controlled by Russian separatists brought down the jet.

He stopped short of directly blaming Moscow for the tragedy, but said it was down to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to end the violence that has plagued Ukraine for months.

"It is not possible for the separatists to function the way they’re functioning, to have the equipment they have … without sophisticated equipment and training, and that is coming from Russia," said Obama. "If Mr Putin makes a decision that we are not going to allow heavy armaments and the flow of fighters into Ukraine … then it will stop."

Russia, however, did not appear eager to disown the rebel movement to which it has been publicly sympathetic and privately supplied logistical and military backing, or at least turned a blind eye to its provision across the Russia-Ukraine border.

Russia’s ambassador to the UN, while not addressing the specific claim of how MH17 was shot down, said that Russia "fully blames Kiev" for all violence in the region. In Moscow, the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, dismissed claims from Kiev that Russia was behind the attack, saying that he had "hardly heard a single true statement come from Kiev in the past few months".

Lavrov’s deputy, Sergei Ryabkov, accused the Americans of having made their minds up without studying the facts, and insisted that it was in fact the US who was to blame. Washington, said Ryabkov, was responsible for "stirring up political instability, provoking an anti-constitutional seizure of power and supporting anti-Russian politicians … The US should think about the consequences of its actions".

Russia’s state-controlled media suggested that a Ukrainian jet or missile system had shot down the plane, with a source in Russia’s defence ministry claiming that Moscow had picked up missile radar activity on Thursday coming from Ukrainian bases. Other more fanciful conspiracy theories were floated, including the idea that the attack was carried out by the Ukrainian army in error, thinking it was Putin’s plane. Rebel websites suggested that the bodies discovered at the crash site were "long dead" and speculated the plane could have been MH370, which went missing earlier this year, hidden and then re-used to stage a "provocation".

While even Obama admitted that the US does not know exactly what happened, amid the ludicrous theories the circumstantial evidence did appear to point more and more to an accidental attack by separatists, who thought they were shooting at a Ukrainian military jet.

If the missile was fired by rebels, it is unclear if they obtained the launch system from Russia, or if it was seized from a Ukrainian army base. Video posted on YouTube claiming to show part of a Buk system being on the move towards the Russian border on Friday could not be verified. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, however, insisted that recordings released by Ukraine’s SBU security services on Thursday of separatist fighters admitting they had downed a passenger liner were "absolutely genuine".

Elsewhere in the east, the fighting between Kiev forces and separatists continued. There were reports that at least 20 civilians had been killed by shelling in the city of Luhansk.

The 298 people aboard MH17 came from nearly a dozen nations, with at least 189 of the dead Dutch citizens. A large number were heading to a conference on HIV/Aids.

"Truly beautiful, inspiring, committed, smart and compassionate people have been brutally taken away from us," said Murdo Bijl, a Dutch Aids advocate who knew many of those on board MH17. "The world and the Aids field will miss these brilliant doctors, advocates, researchers and friends."

The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, who on Thursday night had sounded caution about jumping to conclusions, was also calling for consequences by Friday afternoon: "Let us be clear: if it becomes clear that it was an attack, the perpetrators must be found and punished", the Dutch PM said at a press conference at the ministry of security and justice. "That is something the victims and those they leave behind are entitled to."

Yet overall the reaction to the tragedy in the Netherlands has been remarkable restrained. On Friday morning at 8am, passengers were queuing up to check into another Malaysia Airways flight bound for Kuala Lumpur. One couple in their 20s, who didn’t want to give their names, said they felt "sad" about what had happened, and admitted they were a little bit scared about boarding their flight. But they were determined not to give up on their holiday, a trip around Indonesia.

Erik Elsenaar, an IT consultant waiting at Schiphol for his midday flight to Kuala Lumpur, told the Guardian he was feeling very calm: "This is something that never, never happens, and it’s unlikely to happen again. It is a tragedy, but it doesn’t look like the attack was either directed at Holland or Malaysia Airlines. You can see here that they’ve already doubled the security at check-in. They will probably triple the checks for bombs. It’s definitely safer to travel now than it was to travel the day before yesterday."

There were also nine UK citizens among the dead. A British diplomat in Kiev said if any of the relatives of the nine UK citizens killed in the crash came to Ukraine, they would be given all assistance required, even as far as attempts to journey to the crash site, "within the limits of what is safe, possible and accessible".

A video-conference took place on Thursday evening between the separatists and the Ukrainian president’s representative, the former president Leonid Kuchma, which included mediation from the OSCE and the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, agreed that the separatists would grant access to the crash site for international investigators. However, Friday’s stand-off with the OSCE shows that unfettered access could be tricky to achieve, and the logistics of issues such as retrieving and properly storing bodies, as well as sifting through the evidence, remain unclear.


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