Downing of Malaysian Passenger Jet Is Another Blow for Putin

Russian president's support of Ukrainian separatists - the prime suspects in the shooting down of Flight MH17 - will cost him dearly.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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An Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014.
An Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

There is a cruel, historical irony in the fact that the Boeing 777 Malaysian Airlines airliner which came down yesterday in eastern Ukraine belongs to the same company and was the same model at Flight MH370, which mysteriously disappeared four months ago.

The crash – and the deaths of 295 passengers and crew – merely adds to the woes of the Russian leadership, which now sees its ongoing conflict with Ukraine thrust back into the headlines – eclipsing even the fighting in Gaza for a while – and creating a brand new threat to global air travel.

Unlike that Boeing which vanished in March en route for Beijing, there is no such doubt about what happened to Flight MH17 yesterday.

The flight, which took off from Amsterdam and flew on a route taken by hundreds of airliners flying daily between destinations in Europe and the Far East, did not broadcast any distress signals.

Given that it was flying at a height of 33,000 feet and that it disappeared so suddenly, there is little doubt that was shot down by a long-range antiaircraft missile – launched from somewhere in the vicinity of the Ukraine-Russia border. In recent weeks there have been a number of downing of Ukrainian aircraft by pro-Russian separatists operating in the region, but they have almost all been carried out using small, shoulder-held MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems), which have a range that would not have allowed them to shoot down an airliner at cruising altitude.

At the same time, there have been reports in recent weeks – including in the Russian media, which is staunchly pro-separatist – that they are in control of an SA-17 surface-to-air missile system, which certainly does have that range.

Shortly before the news of Flight MH17's disappearance broke, separatist leader Igor Strelkov boasted that members of the Lugansk People's Republic had succeeded in shooting down a Ukrainian transport plane flying over area under their control. Separatist leaders immediately denied that they had anything to do with the downing of the Malaysian jet, of course, but all the facts seem to be pointing in that direction and Ukrainian defense sources insist that their air-traffic control radars also clearly showed it was shot down over a separatist-held area.

Russian media has been trying to present a narrative whereby the plane was shot at by a Ukrainian fighter jet. Their intention is clear: they want to implicate the separatists. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the country over which the downing took place bears responsibility, but it's hard seeing this version gaining much credibility.

There is no reason to believe the separatists wanted to shoot down a civil airliner; what they really wanted was to hit a Ukrainian military plane. But as we have seen in recent days in Gaza, claims of attacking a "legitimate" target and misidentification which leads to civilian casualties don't go down very well.

Two weeks ago, it seemed as if Putin was scaling back his support for and involvement with the separatists, fearing for the stability of the Russian economy and after realizing that he had failed to undermine the new pro-western government in Kiev.

This change in attitude from the Kremlin also led to the retreat of separatist forces from a number of cities they controlled in south-eastern Ukraine. But in recent days, perhaps after being criticized by Russian nationalists, renewed support in the shape of more "volunteers" and heavy-duty Russian military hardware – including missile launchers and tanks – were being used to attack Ukrainian units. A long-range antiaircraft missile battery would have needed a trained crew of operators, mist likely officers in air-defense units from the ranks of the Russian military.

The fact that Russian-backed separatists now appear to have shot down an airliner filled with passengers of many nationalities should prevent the Kremlin from claiming, as it has been doing, that this is a local conflict in which the West must not interfere. It's hard to see how Putin can continue to support the rebels, despite his attempts to blame Ukraine.

Many commentators referred back yesterday to fierce response of President Ronald Reagan when the Soviet Union shot down Korean Jumbo Jet KAL007 in 1983 – and there is an expectation that President Barack Obama will act in a similar way. He may even announce further economic sanctions against Russia.

There could also be implications for the Middle East in general and the Israel-Hamas conflict in particular. The threat posed to civilian targets by militant organizations holding rockets like Hamas and the Lugansk People's Republic could strengthen international support for Israel's operation in Gaza.

As it is, foreign correspondents who have been reporting in recent days from Gaza are already getting used to the idea that the fighting they have been covering will be relegated from the front pages and to the end of news shows.

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