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The Comforts of Blame

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Investigations tend to be called upon to do just that. Causes are identified; actors are located.  The investigation being demanded by all countries that lost citizens on Malaysian flight MH17 in Ukraine was a perfectly logical, and legal demand.  The language of pre-emption, however, was never far away, begging the question on whether an investigation was even needed.

From the start, the rhetoric surrounding the shooting down of MH17 has been scripted as a matter of moral urgency and outrage.  Culprits have been sought with zeal, and the language of a crime site used to explain the radius within which the remains of the aircraft fell.  Someone pulled the trigger, as much as that can be said.

The extent of that responsibility is being pushed. One person stood out for various pro-Ukrainian circles, and some of political lobbies in Europe and the US: Vladimir Putin, President and supreme bug-bear of Russia.  Papers such as The Week go so far as to ask whether the Dutch will “go after Putin for a war crime” (Jul 18).

It is necessary to visit the clumsy steps taken from the moment the aircraft was shot down, to the political statements being made in western circles over who was supposedly behind the event.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, wasting little time to ponder, told Parliament that this resembled a “crime” more than an accident. The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, expanded on the notion, suggesting that this attack had been against the law of nations, pointing to a rather large Russian hand in it.

US Envoy to the United Nations, Samantha Power, similarly identified the chain of supply, showing the line of reasoning at work:  the SA-11 surface-to-air missile system could not be Ukrainian (despite press reports in late June that separatists had captured a Ukrainian Buk system); it had to have come from Russian sources, ergo, it follows that the Vladimir Putin is dictating the course of action in Ukraine.  “Because of the technical complexity of the SA-11, it is unlikely the separatists could effectively operate the system without assistance from knowledgeable personnel.”  Her displays at the UN proved almost melodramatic relative to President Obama’s more tepid response.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte[1], a Republican senator from New Hampshire, felt it screamingly obvious.  “Russia has her fingerprints all over it either way.” Her suggested formula in response: a total ostracising of the country, complete with “Iranian-type” sanctions.  “I think that this is a crime.  This is beyond a crime, this is an act of terrorism.”

Such logic is tempting, but terribly faulty. For Power, the whirlwind in Donetsk, and the secessionist drive renting Ukraine is a Moscow-centred plot to prevent the embrace of democracy from taking hold.  The heavily armed drunks milling about the crash site are mere proxies of the Kremlin’s dark strategy.  “The context of yesterday’s horror is clear: separatist forces backed by the Russian government continue to destabilise Ukraine and undermine the efforts of Ukraine’s elected leaders to build democratic Ukraine that is stable, unified, secure and able to determine its own future.”

No mention is made about the historical progress to that event, or even to Western interference in what ultimately led to the overthrow of a legitimately elected Ukrainian leadership.  That past is truly a distant country.

Then come the operational issues on the ground.  Supply is not control.  The distinction here seems to have blurred, with attempts to meld the two concepts.  Well it might be that the rocket system was supplied to the separatists from Russian sources.  There might even have been training and expertise thrown into the bargain.  But it is quite another thing to suggest that they came with policy strings, orders and rules of dictation attached.  If anything, there is much to suggest that the rebels are not necessarily in Putin’s best books.  (It would be hard to imagine intoxicated gun toting misfits as solid political material.)

Mary Dejevsky, writing for The Spectator (Jul 20), points out that Russia was unimpressed by rebel efforts to regain military headquarters lost at Sloviansk two weeks prior to the MH17 incident.  With the election of President Petro Poroshenko, a change of direction may well be taking place.  Nor could the account from Kiev of the crash be deemed reliable, with its insistence on blocking and restrictions being placed on the site by separatists.  (Evidently not too many, given the rummaging[2] by some journalists among the remains.) As of this writing, the blackboxes have been handed to Malaysian authorities, and most of the bodies have been collected under OSCE supervision. Notwithstanding this, such behaviour has constituted, for Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop, a disgraceful interference with a crash site.

Other factors of control have already been mentioned as crucial in this grim chapter.  The continued flights by international carriers through the conflict, even after revelations that transport craft had been shot down, shows that aviation authorities may well have gone to sleep.  The one qualification here was that the airspace over the Donetsk region below 32,000 feet was closed, meaning that carriers capitalised on flying at higher altitudes.

What MH17 reveals is that the Cold War allusions, the secrecy dogmas, and the desire to make abundant hay from the information battles, has emptied the deaths of the victims of poignancy and reflective grief.  A cruel atmosphere prevails, and it is proving toxic.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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