No One, Including Russia, Benefits From MH17 Crash
Posted on Jul 21, 2014
By Ivo Mijnssen
These theses remain unlikely, however. The Ukrainian army has so far not employed antiaircraft weapons in this conflict because it had no necessity to do so; the rebels do not own an air force. Why Russia would have shot down the plane remains equally unclear, as Moscow could have no interest in such a scenario considering the amount of international pressure and sanctions that its support of the rebels already generates.
The theory that the rebels shot down the plane accidentally is the most likely. On the day of the crash, the separatists bragged that they had shot down a Ukrainian Antonov 26 transport plane. The Ukrainian secret service published a phone conversation between rebel commanders whose authenticity is controversial but nonetheless accepted not only by security experts but also Russian journalists.
In it, pro-Russian insurgents report to their commander with dismay that the military plane is actually a passenger plane. A little later, the commander of a rebel Cossack group sent to investigate, Nikolai Kozitsyn, callously answers the question of what the plane was even doing in this airspace with a dismissive, “they transported spies.”
Officially, rebels deny the possession of weapons capable of shooting down planes at such altitudes. Only three days prior to the Malaysian airliner, however, they had downed a Ukrainian military plane at an altitude of 6,500 meters (about 21,000 feet), which requires advanced weaponry. Russian journalist Mark Solonin therefore also suspects the rebels—mainly because they are the only side that could have shot down a plane mistakenly. Russian and Ukrainian armies would both have the expertise and infrastructure to distinguish a passenger airliner from a military plane, he argues.
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Solonin also believes that the strong suspicion of Russia tolerating or contributing to rebel ownership of such weapons has had and will continue to have detrimental effects on the country’s international standing, particularly as the chaotic conditions on the ground persist. What Obama and his allies, mainly in Britain and Australia, expect Russia to do is unclear, however. Obama has threatened additional sanctions against Russia if it does not cease its aid to the Eastern Ukrainian rebels. Hesitant European states, first and foremost Germany, will come under increased public and political pressure to support further-reaching sanctions than the limited ones currently in effect. This would deepen the economic crisis already beginning to be felt in Russia but also prove to be costly to the European economies.
Russia could of course do more to control its borders. It has, however, no interest in doing so, as this would abet a Ukrainian military victory. The Russian government’s main geopolitical goal is to delay and, if possible, stop Ukraine’s rapprochement with the West, which it can achieve only by keeping the situation in the East volatile.
Moreover, even if Putin wanted to reverse his stance, it would come with tremendous political risks: He has consistently presented himself as the champion of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. The vast majority of the Russian electorate would perceive a halting of support to the rebels as a betrayal. It would be a suicidal political move. Putin’s uncompromising position is enjoying unprecedented popularity. Almost 90 percent of Russians support him, according to a recent poll.
Independently of all these geopolitical considerations, one should not forget that the main goal in the next days is the identification and the repatriation of the 298 innocent victims and an investigation into the crash. Finally, there is at least some progress on this front: The rebels handed over the plane’s two black boxes to Malaysian representatives and declared a cease-fire around the crash site. The U.N. Security Council, which includes Russia, also agreed on a resolution calling for an independent investigation into the tragedy. Moreover, the train carrying the bodies has apparently started its way to Kharkiv and, afterward, to the Netherlands.
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