The Downing of a Malaysian Airliner over Ukraine: A Regional Crisis Impacts the West – Shaping a European Response


2014-07-20 By Robbin Laird

It started with a crisis in Ukraine; it then became a Russian invasion of Ukraine and “taking back its legitimate territory” from the Putin-led Russian perspective.

It has continued with an intermittently savage conflict on Ukrainian territory with Russia ratcheting up pressure and fostered in part by so-called “Russian separatists” working to reduce further the size of the territory controlled by the government in Kiev.

This is Russian map re-writing at work.

With a swift destruction of a Malaysian airliner purportedly by the use of surface to air missiles shot from Ukrainian territory, the threat of manpads now seen in terms of its more sophisticated brother has become a reality chilling the global aviation industry and providing a new chapter in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis.

The loss of thousands of manpads from the Odyssey Dawn intervention has been a lingering threat overhanging global aviation or evident in threats directly against the state of Israel,.

Now a more sophisticated surface-to-air missile capability in the hands of terrorists has had a global impact. Which terrorists – whether state-sponsored, state-supplied or even worse able to gain access to lethal weapons and training to pop a civil airliner – remains to be determined.

As President Obama has underscored:

US President Barack Obama blamed Russia for creating the conditions which led to the doomed flight MH17 being shot down, as the disaster further fanned the flames of the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.

Malaysia Airlines said 283 passengers and 15 crew were aboard the plane — including, at last count, 192 Dutch nationals, 44 Malaysians, 27 Australians and 12 Indonesians. Australia said 28 of its citizens were on board.

Obama cranked up political pressure on Putin as he presented the conclusions of US intelligence analysts about the “unspeakable” carnage.

“Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine,” Obama said.

He said previous attacks by separatists on government aircraft in Ukraine suggested rebels benefited from Russian technical expertise.

“A group of separatists can’t shoot down military transport planes, or, they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training, and that is coming from Russia,” Obama said.

Europe has been deeply divided over what to do in response the cascading regional crisis.

Europe has had its world cup break and a key European football power has shown its dominance, but to make a central point – what will its national governmental counterpart, Germany do?

What will the UK do?

What will France do?

What will Italy do?

And what will the European Union leadership do?

The most likely response will be to treat as a law enforcement issue that needs to be investigated and remedied, leaving aside the geopolitical realities of the festering crisis.

gor Girkin, aka Strelko, a Russian separatist leader in the Ukraine. Credit Photo: Reuters
Igor Girkin, aka Strelko, a Russian separatist leader in the Ukraine. Credit Photo: Reuters

Leaving the U.S. aside for the purposes of this article, the Russians are playing the crisis assuming they have a strong European hand.

As long as they do, the United States can be characterized as the offshore power, trying to throw oil on the fire.

This is a classic Soviet technique, learned will by Putin, and being played out once again in different historical circumstances.

If one simply reviews political events of recent weeks in Europe, the question of whether Europe will take the latest manifestation seriously from a policy point of view remains on the table.

The EU has had elections and is trying to sort out the new leadership of the commission. One of the difficulties has been that “old” Europe and “new” Europe (to use the phrase coined by Rumsfeld and hated by most Europeans) have been deeply divided over the appointment of the Commissioner responsible for European foreign affairs.

According to a story by Valentina Pop in the European Observor and published on July 14t:

Italian foreign affairs minister Federica Mogherini has emerged as a frontrunner for the EU foreign affairs job, but eastern member states find her too Russia-friendly and have threatened to block her appointment.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius on Tuesday (15 July) was the first leader to go on the record against Mogherini.

“The Italian foreign minister’s candidacy will not be supported,” he told public broadcaster LRT. He added that his view is shared by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who will represent his country at the EU summit in Brussels on Wednesday.

The Baltic states, as well as Poland and Bulgaria, have threatened to put the decision on the foreign affairs post to a vote. But in order to get a blocking minority, they would need the support of the other eastern countries – Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic.

And that was before the Malaysian airliner became a pawn in the Ukrainian crisis.

Will this latest iteration of an “internal” Russian-Ukrainian affair become something other than an object of sanctions and simply distancing the crisis from the West?

Amazingly, the French government is on track to train Russians for a new warship built in France. This is beyond belief at this point.

According to Andrew Rettman of the European Observer, clearly the crisis puts an ever widening spotlight on the French deal with Russia.

A senior EU diplomat speaking off the record was more blunt.

He said France risks “international ridicule” if it goes ahead and described the Mistral as “an increasing factor of irritation inside the EU”.

“Putin has pursued a policy of dividing the US and the European Union, as well as the EU internally. This incident [the air disaster] is going to make it harder for him to do this”.

For his part, French President Francois Hollande did not mention the warship in his remarks about the air crash on Friday.

A French government source also indicated that France is keen to keep talk of the disaster separate from the arms deal.

“The most important priority right now is to shed light on what happened in this catastrophe … We should not turn away from this subject in order to discuss some hypothetical consequences, or to talk about subjects which are not really connected”, the source told EUobserver.

Inside France itself, opinion is divided.

Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean, a Russia analyst at the Paris-based think tank Ifri, said NGOs have held small protests in St. Nazaire.

But she added: “The French chambers of commerce have been doing what they can to make sure the contract is respected, saying that France needs to protect its commercial reputation on the world stage”.

And how will the terrorists who perpetrated this event and the role of Russia in triggering the entire crisis be dealt with?

Investigations, discussions and sanctions are all that seems to be on the table.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday (18 July) said Russia must acknowledge its share of responsibility in the Ukraine plane disaster.

“It is important to have an international investigation as soon as possible. There are many indications that the plane was shot down, so we have to take things very seriously,” Merkel said in Berlin during her traditional summer press conference.

She said she spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday night and that they have “very diverging opinions” about the situation in Ukraine.

EU leaders on Wednesday agreed to widen the sanctions regime to allow companies to be blacklisted. Merkel said “we will continue on this path”, especially after the plane crash.

“Those who shot the plane down must be brought to justice, that’s why an international inquiry is needed. It’s true that separatists are heavily armed and there is evidence that parts of this armament came from Russia. That is why the border regime is so important and for OSCE inspectors to be able to go and see what is coming across the border,” Merkel said.

She added that Germany is pushing within the OSCE (a European multilateral body) to widen the mandate, for instance to use surveillance drones over the Russian-Ukrainian border.

“But there was not much progress, and here it is Russia’s responsibility to move,” Merkel said.

Good luck with this approach Mrs. Merkel!

How about a clear and focused commitment on sharply reducing Germany trade with Russia or energy dependency?

And as for Russian intentions, the visit of Putin to the BRIC summit and the Chinese and Russian leaders touring of Latin America shows the concept of the neighborhood is expanding.

And here is one for the history books: remember Cuba in US and American realtions?

The US may have Guantanamo Bay but the Russians are reopening their listening post in Cuba.

Russia’s return to Lourdes was confirmed by several sources in the Russian government.

Talks with Havana had been ongoing for several years, but Moscow upped the tempo at the beginning of this year.

Russian military chiefs held several meetings with their Cuban counterparts, and in the space of several months, the parties managed to smooth out all outstanding issues.

The arrangements were finalized during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Havana.

At the same time, Moscow wrote off 90 percent of Cuba’s debt to the tune of roughly $32 billion.

The significance of the agreement on Lourdes is hard to overstate.

Situated just over 150 miles from the coast of the U.S., it enabled the Soviet Union to monitor much of the radio traffic of the “potential enemy.”

For now, however, the Russian Defense Ministry and the General Staff (which will command the center) have yet to issue an official comment.

Sounds like a power in retreat and recalcitrant, doesn’t it?

Editor’s Note: For our look at France, Russia and the Mistral see the following:

According to a July 20, 2014 article published by Radio Free Europe (interesting that the name still is around!):

Shortly before reports surfaced that a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 had crashed in eastern Ukraine, a social media site purported to belong to a separatist leader claimed that insurgents had shot down an aircraft.

In a post on VKontakte, Russia’s largest social media site, which has since been taken down, separatist leader Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, wrote:  “In the vicinity of Torez, we just downed a plane, an AN-26. It is lying somewhere in the Progress Mine. We have issued warnings not to fly in our airspace. We have video confirming. The bird fell on a waste heap. Residential areas were not hit. Civilians were not injured.” 

The AN-26 is a Soviet-built twin-engine transport plane used by the Ukrainian military. Torez is a small city of 80,000 located some 40 kilometers east of Donetsk.  Included in the post were two videos that showed a rising plume of black smoke in the distance.

The claim was posted at 5:50 pm Moscow time, shortly before reports surfaced that the Malaysian civilian aircraft, on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, had crashed in eastern Ukraine in the same area near the Russian border.  

A Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser, Anton Herashchenko, claimed the plane had been shot down by a ground-to-air missile.

Andrei Purgin, the self-styled first vice premier of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic, told Interfax the separatists do not have weapons that could shoot down a plane flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters. 

Both Ukrainian and Russian authorities have denied shooting down the Malaysian passenger aircraft.

For an overview on the broader response needed to get real about Russia and its intentions and actions see the following: