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As the world mourns those who tragically lost their lives when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was brought down over eastern Ukraine last week, Malaysia now finds itself entangled in a distant and largely unfamiliar conflict, one that is rife with geopolitical implications.
The victims were people of various nationalities from all walks of life, whose untimely demise represents an escalation that will almost certainly lead to a wider internationalization of the civil war in Ukraine, which threatens to further deteriorate relations between Russia and the United States.
Ukraine’s war has polarized ethnic Ukrainians living in agricultural west of the country who favor integration into the European Union’s orbit, and those in the Russian-speaking industrialized southeast of the country who either support greater autonomy from Kiev or a peaceful integration into the Russian Federation following the example of Crimea.
Easterners opposed the toppling of former President Viktor Yanukovich in February, which gave rise to an unelected government in Kiev that remains heavily under the influence of ultra-nationalist rightwing groups known for their pejorative anti-Russian viewpoints.
Once seizing power earlier this year, the authorities in Kiev hastily attempted to pass laws against the official use of the Russian language throughout the country, stoking outrage from eastern Ukrainians that culturally and linguistically identify themselves as Russian.
Citizens of the east protested in mass numbers against the new authorities in Kiev and occupied public buildings, spurred on by the fear of living under an ultra-nationalist dominated government that would stigmatize the country’s ethnic Russian minority. Demonstrators called for greater autonomy for their regions.
Instead of easing fears through dialogue and trust building, Kiev labeled demonstrators as ‘terrorists’ and launched a large-scale military operation against the restive eastern regions to put down popular opposition to the new regime’s usurpation of power. Militias formed in the east to defend the rebel provinces, giving rise to the armed struggle that continues today.
In the course of Kiev’s military operation, the Ukrainian authorities have blockaded and cut electricity supplies to populated cities while shelling and launching rockets into populated residential areas, resulting in at least 250 civilian deaths since June, according to the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission. Half a million Ukrainians have become refugees according to UN estimates.
Enter MH17. It is in such an antagonistic political atmosphere that both sides immediately assigned blame to one another for downing the aircraft. Before any rudimentary investigation could take place, Kiev and their backers in Washington straightaway took to blaming the rebels, and by extension, the Russian government, which they accuse of aiding the separatist fighters.
After the unprecedented disappearance of MH370 four months ago, news of a second downed airliner stung with shock and disbelief. The overwhelming concern of Malaysians remains to ensure the safe return of casualties for a proper burial, rather than accusing any side of culpability.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose step-grandmother was among those who perished onboard MH17, has been widely perceived as serving a more direct role in handling the disaster from the onset, as he addressed the nation in the hours following the loss of the aircraft.
While media publications and political figures in western capitals hurled accusatory rhetoric from the onset, it is by virtue of Malaysia’s prudent neutrality that the administration in Putrajaya succeeded in brokering a deal with Ukrainian rebel forces that secured the surrender of MH17’s black boxes.
Najib is said to have personally conducted a series of secret telephone calls with Alexander Borodai, the self-styled Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, an entity that has declared independence from Ukraine but has not been recognized by any foreign country.
Though a great deal of international pressure was placed on Ukraine’s rebels to provide access to the crash site and surrender the black boxes, sources claim that Borodai would only agree to releasing the bodies and block boxes to Malaysia, whose officials would then transfer the material to the Netherlands.
Putrajaya’s ability to broker a deal with the Ukrainian rebels has indeed yielded noteworthy success for Najib, who has demonstrated decisive leadership in the face of an unmitigated disaster to secure the best possible outcome.
The example set by the Malaysian leadership must be reflected upon in Kiev, which has been reluctant to negotiate with rebels in the east, opting instead for a bloody military campaign that has wrought great human cost and served to push the embattled region further into Moscow’s corner.
As world powers exchange accusations, it is important at this point to acknowledge that until an objective international investigation can be undertaken, any figure attempting to assign responsibility for this heinous crime onto one side or the other without verifiable evidence is only expressing speculation, not facts.
While top representatives in Washington and Kiev accused Russia from the start, they have failed to provide any forensic evidence that can be scrutinized, relying thus far on clips that have appeared on YouTube and social media.
Russian defense officials have responded by releasing military monitoring data and satellite images that disprove the initial claims made by Kiev. Moscow claims that there is evidence to show that a Ukrainian fighter jet tailed the Boeing aircraft prior to its disappearance.
Satellite images also show Kiev deployed several surface-to-air-missile systems near rebel held-territory, and the Russian military claims to have detected radiation from the missile battery’s radar that was active at the time when the plane came down.
Defense officials have also noted that MH17 took a route some 200km to the north of the trajectories that other Malaysian Airlines flights had used in previous days that led it to fly over the troubled Donetsk region, into the heart of rebel-held territory.
BCC has reported that the Ukrainian secret service has taken the unusual move of confiscating the recording between air traffic control and the doomed aircraft. Such information would be needed to establish culpability and identify whether Ukrainian air traffic control directed the aircraft into the zone where it was shot down.
Rebel forces fighting in eastern Ukraine have succeed in shooting down military aircraft in the days preceding the MH17 disaster, though most analysts agree that the rebels would not have the capacity to strike a civilian passenger aircraft traveling at normal cruising altitude using the man-portable air defense systems that they are known to possess.
As of yet, there is no conclusive evidence that has surfaced to prove that rebels possess the kind of surface-to-air missile systems needed to take down a commercial airliner, and there is also nothing to verifiably substantiate the claim that Russia has supplied this technology to rebel fighters or assisted them in operating it.
When an international investigation panel is formed, it must demand that Ukrainian authorities release recordings between air traffic control and the Malaysian plane, in addition to the raw military radar data and tracking information needed to ascertain the movements of Ukrainian warplanes and the activity of any surface-to-air missile systems that the country possesses.
As voices in western capitals condemn Moscow in unison, the fact remains that Russia is the only country that has made available detailed forensic evidence for international investigators to scrutinize. An impartial and independent investigation into the calamity that befell Flight MH17 must be undertaken before any blame is assigned.
Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.