Sarah Lain: Who is responsible for the shooting down of Flight MH17?

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THE shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 marks a shocking turn of events in the Ukraine crisis. The Ukrainian government, the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine – namely those running the Donetsk People’s Republic – and the Russian government were each quick to deny responsibility and point the finger at others.

Although there were immediate calls for an investigation into what exactly took place and how the aircraft came to be shot out of the sky near the village of Torez in Eastern Ukraine, a key factor is what reaction there will be from the international community once such an investigation is concluded.

The longer term fall-out and implications this incident will have on global security and geopolitical relations could represent a significant turning point in the crisis.

The Ukraine crisis has been notorious for misinformation and propaganda campaigns aimed at discrediting each side in the triumvirate of main players.

Despite the often conflicting information, it is likely that the pro-Russian separatists, using a Buk anti-aircraft missile system, shot down the airliner having mistaken it for a Ukrainian transport plane.

Questions have been raised as to where they procured such an anti-aircraft weapon system and how they learned to operate it. Media reports indicated that the separatists captured it on Ukrainian territory at the end of June.

There had been reports in the week preceding the Malaysia Airlines attack that more powerful,

previously unseen anti-aircraft missiles like the Buk system had been used in a separate attack on a Ukrainian military aircraft.

However, the Ukrainian authorities have also raised the suspicion that the missile system was in fact brought over from Russia.

If Russia is found to have been involved in supplying the equipment or training those that shot down Flight MH17, the implications for global security and geopolitical fall-out are arguably more significant. Relations will not only worsen with the US and Europe, but also the wider international community.

The 298 passengers on board included citizens of Malaysia, the Netherlands, Australia, Germany, the UK and America, among others. Australia in particular immediately issued a very strong statement emphasising what it perceived to be Russia’s responsibility for the incident.

Accusations that Russia has been involved in the separatists’ activities are not new in this conflict, however.

Throughout the crisis there has been an awareness that Russia is likely to have provided some form of support to the separatists, whether it be through military equipment, vehicles or simply its failing to secure the border between the two countries, thus allowing the free passage of people and weapons.

Although not all these claims have been verified, many agree that Russia has done little to use its influential position to de-escalate the situation. One could also argue, however, that the international community has done little in recognising the risk the Ukrainian separatists themselves have posed.

This incident clearly demonstrates a misjudgement of the threat posed by the Ukrainian separatists active in Eastern Ukraine by both Russia and the international community as a whole.

Although the separatists clearly have the skills to operate technical military equipment, so much of their intelligence picture is missing – which led to the deadly miscalculation at the heart of this tragedy.

Regardless of whether the Buk missile system was provided by Russia or already located in Ukraine, the simple fact is that the downing of this passenger plane could not have been carried out without it.

It is undoubtedly an incident that changes the dynamic of the conflict, but a determining factor will be whether the international community now changes its approach to trying to resolve the conflict.

This, of course, is no easy task given the limited options available and the reticence of Russia to acknowledge its responsibility in the crisis.

Some efforts have already been made. Britain called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council following the recent events, which may provide a good platform to discuss the Ukraine crisis in a more formal and international setting.

Including China in talks may potentially have a positive impact compared with previous discussions, given China’s own concerns about separatist activities combined with its warming of relations with Russia.

The US recently introduced more significant sectoral sanctions against certain Russian defence companies, oil and gas companies and financial institutions. These are still limited to minimise any serious backlash on US economic interests.

Stronger sanctions will be effective in placing pressure on Russia, but they may take more time to have the required effect of persuading Russia to stop the separatists from military activity.

Short of Western military support or intervention in Ukraine, the most effective approach to date in containing the crisis has been the progress made by the Ukrainian government itself.

The international community is possibly uncomfortable with supporting military action in fighting the separatists. Moreover, given the zero-sum view that Russia takes of international relations, sanctions may risk pushing Russia away further from negotiations.

However, a more worrying scenario still is that the Ukraine crisis is now prolonged and the separatists become completely unmanageable, even by Russia.

• Sarah Lain is a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.