By Ivo Mijnssen
AP/Lai Seng Sin
A barrage of mutual accusations and contradictory accounts has followed the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Eastern Ukraine on July 17. Its fallout has not only exacerbated the geopolitical struggle in the region, but also shown how chaotic the situation on the ground is in Ukraine’s war zones.
Almost 300 people from at least 11 nations died when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed in Eastern Ukraine. Among them were 80 children and up to 100 of the world’s leading AIDS researchers. As the crash site near the town of Torez in the vicinity of Donetsk lies in territory controlled by pro-Russian insurgents, conditions on the ground continue to be extremely difficult.
According to accounts from local and Western journalists and international observers, armed, masked insurgents and local volunteers secured the perimeter of the crash site and have moved most of the bodies into train cars. After four days of delays, experts from the Netherlands were finally able to see the almost 200 Dutch victims. The crash site is still only loosely guarded, as local inhabitants stroll through it. The fate of the plane’s black box, which would have recorded the events immediately before the crash, remains unclear, as does the question of whether separatists tampered with the crash site. The general impression of the rebels’ behavior at the site, however, is one more of incompetence than intentional ill will.
What they do control is the international experts. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been able to send observers, but their movement has so far remained limited. This in spite of the fact that not only Russian President Vladimir Putin but also the self-proclaimed prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, support such an international investigation. It appears that neither of them is really in control of the local militias, in spite of frequent Western portrayals of the separatists as Russia’s pawns.
The crash shows that events in Ukraine have taken on a dynamic of their own that the great powers barely control. Nonetheless, it has inflamed tensions. One of the few journalists present at the site with the necessary language skills, Austrian television reporter Christian Wehrschütz, talked to local inhabitants: “There is a strong feeling here that the Ukraine is mainly responsible. This is understandable, of course, because Russian media dominate this region,” he told Swiss radio. There exists little common ground internationally in the perception of the situation in Eastern Ukraine, with many Western commentators falling back into Cold War schemes of thinking and Russian state propaganda attributing blame exclusively to the “fascist regime” in Kiev and its American backers. As a result, most Western observers and experts are seen as anti-Russian agitators or potential spies, which complicates any attempt at an objective investigation into the disaster.
Not least, it remains extremely difficult to establish the perpetrator of the attack. Although virtually all experts assume that the plane was shot down, they have not been able to establish this fact beyond doubt. Even more contentious is the question of who is responsible. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and U.S. President Barack Obama accuse the rebels and, indirectly, Russia. Obama blamed Russia because it not only failed to put pressure on separatists to end the fighting, but also supported them actively. “This includes arms and training. It includes heavy weapons, and it includes antiaircraft weapons,” he said.
Putin, for his part, has rejected all responsibility. Instead, he accused his opponents of using the tragedy for their “narrow and self-serving political goals.”
“It is clear that the state over whose territory this happened carries responsibility for this terrible tragedy,” he said, adding that it would not have happened if a June cease-fire had held. This cease-fire, declared by Poroshenko, had been repeatedly broken by both sides, after which the Ukrainian army resumed its attacks on the rebels, using airstrikes, which has caused the number of civilian victims to rise dramatically. According to the OSCE, in rebel-controlled Luhansk alone, 250 civilians were killed in June and July.
Militarily, the strategy showed some success. The Ukrainians retook the city of Slavyansk, a rebel stronghold, in early July. Since then, however, they have suffered a series of setbacks, losing 19 soldiers when they were attacked with Russian-made Grad missiles and also numerous military planes and helicopters in strikes with antiaircraft weapons.
These rebel successes have raised questions surrounding the high-tech weapons’ sudden appearance. Again, verifiable information is hard to come by. There is nonetheless overwhelming circumstantial evidence that in the very least, the Russian authorities are doing nothing to end the flow of tanks, heavy weaponry and Chechen volunteer fighters across the Russian-Ukrainian border.
The source of the antiaircraft weapon that presumably shot down Flight 17 is equally contentious. Russian state media accuse the Ukrainians of shooting down the airliner, mistaking it for a spy plane or Putin’s aircraft, which intersected with the Malaysian airliner over Poland. On Monday, the Russian Ministry of Defense declared that its air control had located a Ukrainian Sukhoi fighter jet in the immediate vicinity of the airliner, implying that it may have shot down Flight 17. Conspiracy theorists even believe that there was a bomb aboard the plane and that it was not shot down at all. Still others argue that the Russians themselves downed the plane.
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.
Nonetheless, Solonin does not believe that the question of the missile’s provenience will ever be clarified beyond all doubt. “Considering the enormous chaos that ruled in the 1990s, it is impossible to reliably follow the shuffle of missiles within the vast spaces of CIS countries,” he wrote. Instead, the Russian and Ukrainian sides both own the same weaponry. The missile may have come directly from Russia, from an overrun Ukrainian army depot or from Crimea.
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.
AP/Lai Seng Sin