When You Mess With Civilian Airliners, You Mess With the World
MH17 shootdown takes the war beyond Ukraine
On July 17, someone shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people.
Ukraine blames Russia. Russia blames Ukraine. No one is sure yet exactly what happened. But the available facts point to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as being responsible.
It’s the latest tragedy in a conflict the international community can no longer contain with sanctions and rhetoric.
Minutes after the crash of MH17, a popular Russian social media page bearing the name of the seperatists’ military commander bragged about downing an aircraft near the village of Torez. The post was later deleted and the site now claims to have received the information from forums and not official channels.
“It does seem pretty conclusive that Strelkov did comment about shooting down a plane,” Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at New York University, told War is Boring via email. “That fits with my working assumption, which is that this was an insurgent missile—provided by the Russians—launched at what they thought was a Ukrainian government aircraft.”
The rebels do have the weapons to take down an airliner like MH17. We know because they told us. On June 29, the press office of the separatists reported they had taken control of a 9K37 Buk anti-air missile system.
The Buk is a medium-range, surface-to-air missile system developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. It’s a popular export—both Ukraine and the rebels are using the missiles.
This is the context of an escalating air war in eastern Ukraine. On June 17, Kiev claimed a Russian jet shot down a Ukrainian fighter plane. On Monday, a separatist missile downed a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane. Earlier in the month, separatists downed an An-30. On June 13, the rebels shot down an Il-76 transport.
The rebels are working hard to control the airspace above eastern Ukraine, but these were low-flying planes and the Buk missile can travel to as high as 72,000 feet. MH17 flew at 33,000 feet, well within the Buk’s range.
YouTube videos go up and come down. Some claim to show the crash while others show the Buk missile system moving through areas near Torez.
Kiev just released a transcript of conversations they claim is between the rebels and their Russian military handlers, and between two rebel commanders. The conversation—captured by Ukrainian intelligence—details the downing of MH17 and the rebels’ horror that it’s a civilian plane.
The world has become accustomed to a certain amount of violence in eastern Ukraine—provided it stays in eastern Ukraine.
On July 16, the White House imposed a new round of sanctions targeting Russian financial, defense and energy companies due to Russia’s continued support of the separatists. Yet the Kremlin continues to arm pro-Russian separatists. These rebels act freely on both sides of the border—including firing Grad rockets from safe havens inside Russian territory.
Shooting down a civilian airliner is an international crisis more serious than anything since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in February. Destroying a civilian airliner is a big deal.
Where before the war contained itself to eastern Ukraine, it’s now threatening the freedom of the skies on which civil aviation and the world economy depends. The rebels are not just messing with Malaysia Airlines—they’re messing with world trade. Airlines are now avoiding Ukrainian airspace, as seen from this screen capture from flight-tracking Website Flightradar24.
What comes next? It’s impossible to say. But if further evidence implicates pro-Russian separatists, the Kremlin will come under intense pressure to revoke its support. This could also galvanize support in Europe for further sanctions and for an expanded U.S. ballistic missile defenses on European soil.
“Whoever did it should pay a full price,” said Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If it’s by a country, either directly or indirectly, then it could be considered an act of war.”
There’s precedent for this. After the Soviet shoot-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983, the U.S. drummed up support in NATO to deploy Pershing II nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to West Germany.
When Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar ordered the bombing of Avianca Flight 203 in 1989, he became the world’s most wanted man overnight. The U.S. poured resources into hunting him down. Colombian troops backed by CIA intelligence finally gunned him down on a rooftop in 1993.
Iran and Iraq fought the so-called “tanker war” of the 1980s by targeting each others’ container ships. Attacks on neutral vessels provoked the U.S. Navy escort mission Earnest Will.
One U.S. warship participating in the mission—the Ticonderoga-class missile cruiser USS Vincennes—accidentally shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988 killing 290 people. The war ended shortly after. But the shooting badly damaged U.S.-Iranian relations for years, and the U.S. payed more than $131 million in restitution.
This has happened before. Whoever shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 has made a huge mistake.