Russia-Ukraine Crisis: Implications Of Malaysian Airliner Crash

Facts about the destruction of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine on July 17 are still emerging, but regardless of the cause, the incident is certain to increase international tensions surrounding the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Unsurprisingly, both sides in the conflict are blaming the other for downing the aircraft, with the loss of 295 lives. At this stage, in the absence of an investigation, any bold public statements from officials representing countries with interests in the conflict must be treated with caution. There is an intense propaganda battle being waged at the same time as military operations.

Overall, it would seem highly unlikely that the airliner was deliberately shot down with the full knowledge that it was a civilian passenger aircraft. Neither the Ukrainian government, nor pro-Russian separatist rebels, nor Russia, has any interest in the destruction of a civilian aircraft over Ukraine. The most likely explanation is that the airliner was mistaken for a military aircraft and thus targeted for destruction.

Three Previous Similar Incidents

There have been three precedents for this sort of destruction of airliners. In 1983, the USSR shot down a South Korean airliner in the Far East after it violated Soviet airspace, in a particularly militarily sensitive region. All 269 people on board were killed. The US Reagan administration used the incident to further condemn the Soviet leadership at a time when Cold War tensions were extremely high.  

Five years later, in 1988, a US warship in the Gulf shot down an Iranian airliner, with the loss of 290 lives. The warship’s captain apparently believed that the airliner was an Iranian fighter jet preparing to attack – although many Iranians believe the airliner was deliberately shot down to pressure Tehran to sign a final ceasefire with Baghdad to end the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).

More recently, in October 2001, the Ukrainian military mistakenly shot down a Russian airliner over the Black Sea, during a training exercise. The incident, coming only a month after 9/11, was initially thought to be terrorism, but Kiev later admitted responsibility.

Who Was To Blame?

If it turns out that the Malaysian airliner was shot down by pro-Russian forces, then the US and its allies, plus Ukraine, will use the incident to further pressure Moscow to end its support for the rebels. ‘International public opinion’ may shift decisively against Russia, and the rebels will be portrayed as terrorists (even if the shootdown was accidental). Russia has persistently been accused of providing arms and volunteers to the insurgents. Now, Russia may be criticised for not being able to control the insurgents. Yet, there would be no guarantee that Moscow would comply with Western demands… meaning that the conflict could yet escalate.

If it turns out that the Ukrainian military shot down the aeroplane, then it will be seen as reckless and incompetent, and President Petro Poroshenko will face considerable pressure to scale back his administration’s assault against separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Even so, Kiev and its allies would still blame Russia for backing the separatists – and thus instigating the conflict – in the first place.