The Malaysian Airlines Tragedy- Will Complex Geopolitics Obstruct Delivery of Justice?

Written by: Pathikrit Payne
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Malaysia plane crash
Kiev, July 19: The shocking incident of the crash of Malaysian Airlines MH-017 is devastating and tragic in more than one sense. On one hand, it was the second tragic incident in four months involving a Malaysian Airlines plane. In March this year, a Malaysian Airlines flight MH-370 en route to Beijing disappeared in mid air and its traces or the fate of the 227 passengers and crew, remain unknown till date.

The MH-017 flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur was flying over eastern Ukraine when it was allegedly shot down allegedly by a Surface to Air Missiles. Eastern Ukraine has been a theatre of an intense battle for the last several months between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Who was behind it?

While the most fingers are pointing towards the separatists and their alleged use of a Russian made BUK Surface to Air Missile, questions are also being raised as to why the Ukrainian authorities allowed the flight over a conflict zone which had witnessed several military aircrafts being shot down over the last few weeks.

Even as an international consortium of investigators start work on collecting precious evidence from the wreckage and especially the Black Box of the crashed aircraft, there are serious anxieties all around as to what would be the eventually outcome if it is confirmed that the missiles were indeed fired by the pro-Russian separatists. This would indeed put Russia in a tight spot given the fact that Russia has often been accused of providing lethal arms including surface-to-air missiles to the separatists in Ukraine.

Can Russia be directly blamed?

While Russia might then act to a certain extent, and withdraw its support from the separatists at most, reality is that the world today is certainly not in a position to indict Russia and punish it for any wrong doing. The geopolitical paradigm of the world is changing fast and even US would prefer to avoid any serious confrontation with Russia on this issue barring a few economic sanctions with questionable, rather negligible impact on Russia.

However, in any case Russia cannot be directly blamed either since it did not involve Russian Forces or neither had it happened in Russian airspace. Further Russia had nothing to gain by doing something as horrific as this. In all probability it was a case of mistaken identity with rebels shooting it down by presuming it to be a Ukrainian military plane.

The US stand - Stops short of blaming Russia directly

The US President in his address, even while pointing fingers at the Russian backed separatists, stopped short of directly accusing Russia, knowing well the ramifications of the same. It would be more interesting to see how Europe reacts since a whopping 189 of the 298 passengers in the crashed craft were Dutch. Even though the Dutch Prime Minister has vowed to bring to justice those who were responsible for the crime, one wonders how it would be done.

The area being a conflict zone and a rebel stronghold, the writ of the Ukrainian Government over there is next to zero. Ground invasion by NATO or others to nab the perpetrators can almost be ruled out since the area is a mere 60 Km from the Russian border. Doing something like that would mean a direct conflict with Russia, which most would avoid at any cost.

The only country therefore who can still help to give justice to the dead is Russia itself. But whether Russia would hand over the rebels would remain a question mark. For Europe, imposing sanctions or taking a tough stand against Russia is even more of a Hobson's choice situation because of its absolute dependence on Russian gas to stave off the snowy winters. Europe risks the possibility of freezing to death if Russia closes the gas taps which keep Europe warn.

The Bigger Question- Is funding of proxy wars taking its toll now?

Everything said and done, the habit of big powers in terms of funding and aiding proxy wars is creating a dangerous situation. The issue of Obama asking US Congress for $ 500 million support ( for the Syrian rebels or that of the CIA sending arms to Syrian rebels ( since 2013, or that of the Qataris, Kuwaitis and Saudis funding ISIS is not much different from Russian support for the pro Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. What happened over Ukrainian airspace can happen over Iraqi or Syrian airspace tomorrow.

In each case the ramifications are only getting worse. If in the Middle East the ISIS has continued with its unabated violence, the pro Russian separatists in Ukraine just showed the danger of funding such reckless organizations.

The other theory floating around

However, another round of theory doing the rounds and claimed primarily by the Russians is that perhaps the real target of whosoever shot down the Malaysian airliner might have been Russian President himself, since the livery of IL-96 in which the Russian president flies is similar to that of the Malaysian Airlines. Russia Today, a leading Moscow based news agency stated in their portal,

‘"I can say that Putin's plane and the Malaysian Boeing intersected at the same point and the same echelon. That was close to Warsaw on 330-m echelon at the height of 10,100 meters. The presidential jet was there at 16:21 Moscow time and the Malaysian aircraft - 15:44 Moscow time," a source told the news agency on condition of anonymity.' (

Related to it is the issue of whether one can completely rule out Ukrainian complicity in any wrong doing as well, since it has been bearing the brunt of a Russia backed separatist movement for long and wanted to settle score with Russia? Can one absolve Ukraine completely since it was the Ukrainian Air Traffic Controller that gave permission to the Malaysian flight to fly over the conflict zone?

What next for civil aviation safety? Is the sky getting too risky?

Nevertheless, the gruesome tragedy might compel the International Civil Aviation Organization to have stricter norms on the issue of flying over conflict zones which many airliners often do to save fuel and time on international routes. The possibility of all airlines in future, being asked to have counter measures such as flares to thwart off incoming missiles cannot be ruled out either. This is a practice which all Israeli civilian aircrafts mandatorily follow.

While the world is yet to come to terms with this tragic incident, one has to keep in mind that this was not the first time that civilian passenger airliners have been hit by missiles or shot down by other means.

There have been scores of incidents in the past when such things happened including the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 shot down by Soviet Su-15 Tm fighter aircrafts on September 1, 1983, preceded by another such incident involving Korean Airlines when in 1978 another of its passenger aircraft was shot down by Soviets.

In both cases, violation was air space was given as the reason by the Soviets for shooting down, during the height of the Cold War. Similar incidents happened in Middle East and Africa as well. There were incidents where even US was involved in shooting down of civilian planes, including the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 on July 3, 1988 by a surface to air missile when it was mistaken for an Iranian fighter plane.

The MH-017 tragedy- a big blow to AIDS research?

Another major tragedy related to this incident is the demise of more than 100 AIDS researcher among the passengers who were on their way to an AIDS related conference in Australia. The dead included Joep Lange considered a doyen in the field of AIDS research. This tragic death of so many major scientists from the AIDS/HIV research community may come as a major blow to the quest of mankind to find a permanent solution or a vaccine to the HIV menace.

From here to where for Malaysian Airlines?

While air travel has become considerably safer over the last few decades, incidents related to such disappearance of crafts and their shooting down have kept on happening from time to time. But for Malaysian Airlines, the jinx perhaps continues and with two major tragedies in mere four months, with the first one still far from being solved, the possibility of many passengers preferring to avoid that airliner in the times to come remains high. The national carrier of Malaysia may have a tough time to win trust of its own people again,

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