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MH17 and Ukraine’s Dilemma

It’s the sort of thing that would see any airline liquidate and vanish. Two lost aircraft in the course of months, one that has yet to be found, having veered off in a fit of perverse mindedness; another, shot down allegedly by militants in a contested area of a country where air traffic is heavy.

Malaysian Airlines flight MH170, a Boeing 777, had 295 people on board. (Some figures suggest 298.) It was on route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, explaining the vast bulk of the victims being from the Netherlands. Australia came in second, with 27. It was packed specialists and sages on the treatment of AIDS. The aircraft was shot down, in all likelihood by a surface-to-air missile emanating from rebel-held areas in Ukraine.

The first baffling thing about the loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was that it showed that airliners were making use of eastern Ukrainian airspace, notably the eastern portion. This bore eerily similar reminders of previous jetliners which had suffered the fate of being identified as a target with military profiles. In 1988, the USS Vincennes notoriously shot down an Iranian liner over the Strait of Hormuz. It had, according to the crew, the profile of an F-14.

The fact that heavy international traffic continued in eastern Ukrainian airspace may well suggest more than a mere slipup in aviation awareness. Profits and continued convenience matter in the world of aviation travel. It also suggests a near negligent sense of the dangerous conflict in eastern Ukraine that has now moved into aerial operations and engagements. (Only on Wednesday, it is alleged that a Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down by Russian forces.) Allegations issue from both sides about inflicting loss on aircraft.

Some airlines immediately suspended using the routes. A spokesperson for Lufthansa suggested that east Ukrainian airspace would be avoided “by a wide margin”. A dramatic emptying of the routes, evidenced by radar tracking, followed. But such bodies of aviation as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had made it clear some three months prior that dangers were genuine. Its order under the “special rules” section of its site outlines the prohibition relevant to American pilots, airlines, charter carriers, and those under the umbrella of FAA jurisdiction.

It specifically references various parts of southern Ukraine. “No person described in paragraph (A) may conduct flight operations in the portion of the Simferopol (UKFV) Fir within the following lateral limits…” Critics of this will naturally point out the fact that this is a reference to Crimea, an area distinctly outside the reference of the crash zone. But that would be letting the air liners off easily. The FAA were, remarkably, on to something.

Some of the rebels in question did wonder what, exactly they had shot down. Initial exultation that a Ukrainian transport plane had been downed was followed by bafflement – there was no evidence of military uniforms or insignia, only civilian clothing clinging to remains. “The bird,” claimed Igor Girkin, defence minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, “went down behind a slagheap, not in a residential district. So no peaceful people were injured.” Then came the genuine horror that a civilian craft had been shot down in a moment of misguided enthusiasm. Inevitably, the suggestion of spies was thrown in – what would a Malaysian aircraft be doing in the skies of eastern Ukraine? The combatants could only think in such terms: a foreign aircraft suggested the workings of espionage.

It remains to be confirmed whether the link between the fateful weapon – possibly the Buk weapons system – and the culprit, is established. It certainly does look better for Kiev that the separatists leave their stain on the remains of M17 – after all, the term terrorism and terrorist match the profile of the public relations profile being sought in Western circles. This brings with it the legal trappings – blowing a passenger airliner out of the sky with a sophisticated weapons system would then throw the onus back on possible Russian links of supply, even if it was very possible that the stem might have been obtained in Ukraine to begin with. Both Ukraine and Russia have access to such weapons, but one would not have known it listening to the address by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in the Australian parliament.

The register of excuses is certainly getting crowded. Moscow had just received a round of further sanctions from the EU and the United States, and Kiev had been emboldened to strike at resilient militants. The campaign by militants against Kiev’s air transports has been stepped up, and President Vladimir Putin is in no doubt that much of this kafuffle stems from Kiev’s overly aggressive attempts to bring the separatists to heel. Air transports, whatever they carry, are not safe.

From the smoking debris of MH17 comes the possibility for accelerated conflict, or the generous brake of diplomacy. The deaths of civilians on such a scale may give the combatants room to pause, seeing needless slaughter through the eyes of others. The chances of having the Malaysian Prime Minister forge an agreement with the Ukrainian and Russian authorities over access to the site, with international protection, seem too good to miss. Otherwise poorly occupied UN Security Council seats might well be used by those keen to develop an international arrangement that my bring Kiev and the separatists to the table. The time may come when Putin will also manoeuvre in that way.

The details of the investigation will have to be worked out. Local protection will have to be offered. The details of the blackbox examining the fateful moments when MH17 was blown out of the sky may well prove illuminating – what was the signal brief for the pilots over contested Ukrainian territory? But the political opportunists will also be eager to make rich gains. This is civil conflict that is fast expanding into a war on some scale, and the pro-war lobbies seem to be in charge.

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

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

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