The downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine has been one of the major events of last week. Most of the fingers of blame have been pointed at the pro-Russian separatists who have previously shot down Ukrainian military aircraft with sophisticated Russian surface to air missiles (though both sides have access to such weaponry).
The photographs are quite harrowing – personally I find the ones of toys and books etc. to keep children happy during the flight the most distressing. All sorts of allegations are now flying around accusing the separatists of trying to impede the attempts at an independent investigation though it is only fair to state that most western media and governments seem to have prejudged those responsible.
A slightly more nuanced approach has come from Masha Alekhina (from Pussy Riot) in the Guardian. No friend of Putin she has, however, pointed out that it was “a stupid, horrible accident.”
The mess in Ukraine leaves no one there meriting all blame or opprobrium. The pro-Russian rebels are waging a violent campaign but equally the Ukrainian government and those fighting for them include ultra right fascist groups. The previous Ukrainian government was highly corrupt but was elected. Its overthrow was supported by Europe and the USA after they had, under pressure from Moscow, rejected a pro-EU trade deal.
Going back further Russia guaranteed the borders of Ukraine when the USSR broke up but equally it was agreed by the west not to extend NATO to Russia’s border. The boundaries within the old USSR were also drawn fairly arbitrarily including many peoples on the “wrong side” of various borders which had been administratively rather than politically relevant prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The question remains whether Putin feels it sufficiently strategically or politically important to take the pro Russian parts of Ukraine as he did with Crimea. If he does there is nothing really the West will be willing to do about it. The danger might be that attempting to humiliate Russia over this episode might be counterproductive.
It is also important whilst the west (especially the USA) is criticizing Russia and Putin personally for this incident that they remember not only (as they have been) Korean Flight 007 shot down by a Russian fighter but also the possibly even closer parallel with Iran Air Flight 655. That was an Iranian Airbus shot down by two missiles from the American cruiser USS Vincennes again with massive loss of life.