July 18, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: MH17: The Inevitable Tragedy
• Once Russia provided heavy weapons, advisors, and de facto air cover to Ukrainian separatist rebels, it was inevitable the conflict would intensify, this time with the apparent downing of a civilian airliner by a surface-to-air missile
• Both sides are ramping up their information campaigns to blame the other for the incident that killed all 295 on board over eastern Ukraine, though it is most probable that pro-Russian rebels shot down the Boeing 777 using an SA-17 missile
• Given that the rebels claimed and then quickly retracted responsibility for the downing, it is likely they didn’t know it was a civilian airliner, perhaps presuming it was another Ukrainian military transport plane like the one they shot down just a few days ago, also at altitude, on July 14
• This incident might force European countries that have, for various reasons, been reluctant to pressure Russia to stop its transparent proxy war in eastern Ukraine
• The tragedy might also have repercussions in Syria, as it shows the inevitable dangers of supplying heavy weapons to proxies, regardless of cause.
The downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 by an apparent missile strike over eastern Ukraine is a tragedy, in its immense loss of life and in its inevitable nature.
For months, Russia has been conducting a blatantly transparent proxy war, a “tracksuit invasion,” to maintain leverage over what it perceives as its historic sphere of influence. When it provided heavy weapons, to include tanks, heavy machine guns, and surface-to-air missiles to the separatist rebels, a tragedy of this sort became inevitable. Tensions become conflicts when weapons are added, and become ever more prone to tragic consequences as heavier weapons are introduced.
Oddly enough, the last time a civilian airliner was brought down by a military missile was also in Ukraine, in October 2001. After denying it, the Ukrainian government admitted it had accidentally fired during a training exercise upon a Siberian Airlines plane carrying 78 people from Tel Aviv to Siberia, Russia. All on board were killed when the plane fell into the Black Sea. When tensions are high (as they were then and now between Russia and Ukraine) and missiles are present, mistakes do happen. In 1983, the US Navy accidentally shot down an Iranian Air flight over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people. Even well-trained militaries make mistakes when tensions aren’t nearly as high, which makes Russia’s arming and advising of Ukrainian rebels with advanced weapons all the more unacceptable.
It is likely the rebels didn’t intend to shoot down a civilian plane, perhaps thinking the target (which they couldn’t see, relying on the target acquisition radar of a surface-to-air missile system such as the SA-17) was another Ukrainian military transport plane like the AN-26 they shot down and bragged about on July 14. Immediately upon learning that the aircraft was a civilian passenger plane, both sides blamed the other, with the Russians even suggesting the Ukrainian military might have shot it down in the mistaken belief it was Russian President Putin’s plane, which happened to be flying back from Brazil to Moscow (though nowhere near the incident). Nonetheless, in the ensuing information operations, the Russians have and will continue to cite the Ukraine military’s previous shooting down of a civilian airliner in 2001.
Even if compelling evidence shows who did the shooting, it won’t change opinions in Ukraine or Russia; the sides are too immersed in a propaganda war to accept the other’s reality. But what it might do is change international opinion towards tolerating a proxy war in the heart of Eurasia. The fact is, 295 people are dead because someone thought it was a good idea to give rebels surface-to-air missiles in the hope they would hit only their intended targets. That this wasn’t an intended consequence doesn’t matter much now.
The battlefield in eastern Ukraine is dynamic and directly underneath the busiest air corridor between Europe and Southeast Asia, making the proliferation of surface-to-air missiles even more dangerous. This incident will cause all flights to divert around the conflict area, since there is no way to prevent another incident because the weapons are already in the area. It might also call for countries to pressure Russia to either reign in its proxy or work more honestly towards a solution. Russia may be able to apply pressure on its surrogates, but the nature of proxy conflict is a loss of control—though not of responsibility. Rebels are rebellious, and by nature, tend to stray from their patron’s grasp.
This incident might also have further geopolitical repercussions far to the south in Syria. It is tempting to wave aside the tragic inevitable when talking about one’s own proxies but this is a false comfort. There is certainly next to no way to prevent not only mistakes from happening with heavy weapons but to also stop more extremist rebels from simply taking the weapons from the ‘moderates’ since the extremists have at times proven to be the more determined fighters.
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