WASHINGTON, July 18, 2014 — A day after a Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine, there is little indication that the tragedy is encouraging efforts to end the festering civil war in Ukraine.
Instead, players are resorting to finger pointing while avoiding their own responsibility in the tragedy.
Ukraine’s government has blamed Russia and pro-Russian separatists for the attack, saying that they should both be held accountable. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko stepped up his condemnation of Moscow and the separatists after U.S. intelligence stated that “preliminary assessments” showed the Malaysian flight was shot down by a missile fired by separatists. The government also released intercepted audio from a rebel commander to Moscow which appears to suggest responsibility for shooting down the plane.
Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to deny culpability and instead says Ukraine’s government is at fault. He has condemned the government for failing to maintain control of its territory and its arsenal and to bring about peace in the country.
Russian separatists have publicly denied shooting down the plane. They blame the military of Ukraine for the attack.
The unfortunate reality is there is plenty of blame to go around.
The first, most obvious, blame lies at the feet of the separatists. Although forensic evidence has not yet definitively proven that they fired the missile, it is highly probable that they were responsible.
The plane was shot down over territory held by separatists, and separatists almost certainly had SA-11 surface-to-air missile systems which appears to have been used to bring down the airliner. In mid-June, separatists boasted on social media that they had acquired the equipment after over-running a Ukrainian military base. Other analysts have speculated that Russia may have provided the system directly to separatists. Moreover, the separatists downed two Ukrainian planes earlier this week.
The separatists have been characterized as “thugs” without training or education.
The two groups who could have possibly downed the aircraft are Ukrainian military officials and separatists. It is highly unlikely that Ukraine was shooting planes out of the sky, and highly probable that untrained separatists mistook a passenger aircraft for a military flight.
That leads to Russia, whose backing of the separatists and annexation of Crimea earlier this year raised tensions in Ukraine and contributed to the civil war. Even if Russia did not directly provide the SA-11 system to separatists, it almost certainly trained them in how to use the system.
Moreover, in June, NATO reported that it had uncovered evidence Russia has increased training of separatists in heavy weapons, and that it is continuing to arm separatist forces. Moscow is also sending fighters to bolster separatist forces and provides border access for rebels.
To date, Russia has taken virtually no action to diffuse tensions in Ukraine and has instead continued to inflame the situation. It is unclear how much authority Moscow has over the separatists, but cutting off supplies, weapons and manpower would significantly pressure separatists to negotiate.
Ukraine’s government is not immune from blame in the tragedy. Although Ukrainian military/government forces did not physically shoot the aircraft down, Kiev carries some responsibility the ongoing crisis. The recent government assault against separatists, for example, accomplished little beyond inflaming tensions and further alienating pro-Russian groups in eastern Ukraine.
Last night on Charlie Rose, Hillary Clinton urged Europe to rally and take stronger action regarding the crisis in Ukraine. Although Europe has joined the United States in sanctioning Russia for its role, it has hesitated to clamp down on Russia or to significantly pressure Ukraine to resolve the crisis for its own self-preservation.
So far, Europe has hesitated to risk losing Russian oil and gas supplies or to endanger trade relations with Russia. This lack of pressure has contributed to allowing the civil war to continue. As a whole, the West has been reluctant to take a strong stand that might force the parties to the negotiating table out of fears for their own self interest.
Without falling into a “blame the victim” mentality, even Malaysian Airlines holds some blame for the incident. In April, European and American aviation authorities issued warnings about flying over eastern Ukraine. The European Aviation Safety Agency published an advisory noting the possibility of “serious risks to the safety of international civil flights” and the Federal Aviation Administration issued a similar warning due to unrest in the region. Electing to follow a flight plan over eastern Ukraine ignored those warnings.
International investigators are now attempting to comb through the wreckage to unlock the remaining questions surrounding the crash. The black boxes reportedly have been located, but are unlikely to provide specific information on the culprits. That answer will come from forensic investigation of the site, intelligence interviews, and other methods.
Even so, it may be weeks or years before authorities difinitievely pinpoint the individuals responsible. Russia took nine years to release forensic evidence related to its downing of a Korean passenger airline in 1983, so immediate answers may not be forthcoming.
Even without specific evidence on who shot the missile, the world already likely knows the perpetrators. The world also knows the co-conspirators and the contributors. The critical issue now is how to end the civil war in Ukraine and avoid future tragedy.
Unfortunately, instead of bringing the players to the table, the Malaysian airline tragedy appears to have further entrenched all sides, making a near-term resolution even less likely.