The US State Department has established that the weapon used to down the Malaysian airliner was an R-1 rocket, known to the Russians as SA-11 (a weapon made by the Soviets, based on the V-2 rocket), and that it was used by separatist rebels who knew what they were doing (at least as far as handing and operating the weapon). We now know for sure it was fired by the pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels in Eastern Ukraine.
Petr Poroshenko has stated that while the rebels in Ukraine were known previously as “terrorists” in Ukraine, they will now be known as terrorists to the world. Indeed, after reports of separatists looting the bodies, a Ukrainian government official warned the relatives of the victims that looters have made off with credit cards, and asked that the relatives of the deceased cancel the credit cards lest they become assets of “terrorists.” Personally, my initial reaction to the Ukrainian government’s use of the term “counter-terrorism” to describe military operations against separatists this past spring was a little heavy-handed. I personally believed that the term “counter-terrorism” was deliberately used to get the backing of the West, particularly the US, which has been focusing on counter-terrorism in its own right for over a decade.
The consensus seems to be that this was not a deliberate act of terrorism, but rather was a horrible accident, perhaps not dissimilar to the crash in 2010 of a plane in Smolensk, Russia, which was carrying many of Poland’s top brass. It was a messy, highly contentious affair not only because of what happened, but the aftermath of trying to conduct an independent and unbiased investigation. One thing that distinguishes the shooting-down of the Malaysia Airlines flight, however, is that now the pro-Russian rebels have possibly not only lost any support they may have had from analysts and the public at large, they may also end up losing some of their support from Russia, as well.
Anna Dyner of the Polish Institute of International Affairs asserts that the attack on the airliner does not seem to be deliberate, but that Russia is nevertheless at least partially to blame for the incident. Even if the attack on the civilian airliner was not deliberate, a position which British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be taking, the armed groups in Ukraine’s east have sent a very clear message: we are not without the capabilities to do major destruction to innocent civilian targets. Whoever was operating the launch system was trained in how to use it, even though, as US Intelligence officials have announced, the people operating it were nevertheless poorly trained.
Some figures, such as The Nation’s Bob Dreyfus, places blame for the tragedy squarely on the shoulders of Vladimir Putin. Russian papers and media outlets, of course, are painting a much different version of the events. Indeed, many in the area of the crash are supporting the version of events coming from Moscow. Unfortunately, no incident like this will be devoid of opportunism, propaganda and a chance for the conflicting sides to undermine each other.
One thing that is certain is that the tragedy involving Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 indicates how incidents which occur in seeming distant corners of the globe have not only broad international implications (that, frankly, has never been anything new) but that they now entail a broad scope of international involvement. Earlier this year, when over 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped by the insurgent group Boko Haram in Nigeria, a host of countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, sent military and intelligence officials to help relocate the victims of Boko Haram’s kidnapping. Now we are seeing, once again, the involvement of investigators from several other countries in this current incident. To be sure, there were Americans, Britons and Canadians on board, too, but it almost now goes without saying that most of the victims abroad MH 17 were Dutch nationals.
The involvement of so many in the ensuing investigation of the crash, I believe, demonstrates an underlying tension which characterizes international relations in general. As I have pointed out in previous blog posts, there are two main schools of thought in this field: liberalism (the idea that countries can cooperate) and realism (the notion that all countries only seek their own interests). What seems to be occurring is that, while there is definitely a lot of genuine goodwill and benevolence on the part of those participating in the investigation, this incident unfortunately also provides both sides of the conflict and their major backers with a chance to engage in a propagandistic battle of wills. All the while, it is the families and friends of the victims who, to put it colloquially, get the shaft.
There has been no shortage of coverage of the situation in Ukraine since March on a variety of media outlets and in particular social media. So the downing of MH 17 will not necessarily create more attention for Ukraine, as there really has not been a lack thereof. Nor will this likely be the much-touted “game changer” for Russia and the pro-Russian separatists some have speculated on. But what this does mean is that involvement in the Ukraine crisis for countries and groups outside of Eastern Europe will comprise more than just diplomatic action. This incident now has financial and security implications. There is talk of increased sanctions against Russia, not to mention the potential financial blowback against Malaysia Airlines, which has now encountered a second major tragedy this summer alone.
Thus, with the downing of MH17, much of the world went from being mere spectators to being more directly involved and affected by the crisis in Ukraine.
Our thoughts are with all of those who lost loved ones on July 17 as a result of the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.