The MH17 Disaster
Last Thursday’s downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was an inexcusable crime. It fully deserves to be condemned, as the U.S. and other governments have already done, and there seems little doubt as to who the responsible parties are. Available evidence tells us that rebels opposed to the Ukrainian government and supported by Russia shot down the plane, and they did so with weapons that they would almost certainly not have had if Russia were not providing them with arms and support. Russia appears to bear significant responsibility for what has happened in two ways: by encouraging rebellion inside Ukraine, and by providing rebels with advanced weapons and assistance. The downing of the plane was presumably unintentional, since neither the rebels nor Moscow could be so stupid as to have done this knowingly, but that doesn’t change the fact that this horrific mistake killed almost 300 civilians who had absolutely nothing to do with the conflict below them. The Ukrainian authorities shouldn’t have been letting the plane fly there, but that hardly absolves the killers of their guilt.
It would be much wiser for Moscow to denounce the act and accept some responsibility for helping to create the conditions that led to this disaster, but it appears that the Kremlin would prefer to make lame attempts to shift the blame onto others. It would also be wise for Moscow to take this opportunity to withdraw or at least significantly reduce its support for rebels inside Ukraine, but I wouldn’t expect this to happen, either. It would be ideal if the disaster served as a catalyst to bring the war to an end, but that seems least likely of all.
Fortunately, it also isn’t going to serve as the spark for a larger conflict, because no one’s interests are served by escalation. The arguments against supplying U.S. arms to Ukrainian forces remain just as persuasive as they were several months ago and may even be a bit stronger now. If there is one thing that can be learned from this awful slaughter, it is that providing weapons to proxies can have dangerous and unexpected consequences, and it makes the patron complicit in whatever the proxies then choose to do with the weapons they receive. On top of that, providing arms doesn’t necessarily mean that the patron has the ability to control the proxies, which can drag the patron deeper into a conflict that it might prefer to avoid.
As Joshua Keating argued last week, in spite of all the claims that the destruction of MH17 will be a “game-changer,” it will probably change very little:
When the story eventually falls out of the headlines—and it certainly already has competition—the conflict will likely remain. I should note that while all the examples of passenger planes being shot down mentioned in my last post raised global tensions, none of them actually led to a war, or ended one.
The U.S. shouldn’t rush to take any action, and it should coordinate its response with its allies in Europe, especially the Dutch, since they have suffered the greatest loss and have the most at stake in this case. Russia should be called on to make a formal apology for the downing of the plane, and it should be expected to make restitution to the families and the countries of the victims. Slapping more sanctions on Russia will be as useless as ever, and pushing for additional sanctions is more likely to fracture whatever unity the U.S. and its European allies have in the wake of the disaster. There will understandably be a strong temptation to take some “tough” but foolish action now, but this is exactly the sort of outrage that requires a calm and cautious response so that it does not become the cause of even more bloodshed and conflict.