Alphen, Netherlands. 17 July. Today I was at Amsterdam Schiphol airport picking my father up. There can be little doubt I walked past the poor people of many nationalities whose remains are smouldering as I write on the Steppe close to the Russia-Ukrainian border. It is of course too early to tell what or who downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 as it made its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. However, the known circumstances, the location, tweets from pro-Russian separatists congratulating themselves for shooting down a Ukrainian military plane that coincide with the loss of MH 17 and other information which I have seen all point to a surface-to-air missile of Russian design as being responsible.
Let me say at the outset that Russia did not do this. The chance that a state-of-the-art Russian military system under Russian military control was used is very small indeed. Such advanced systems would have had an Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) safeguard that would have ‘tagged’ MH 17 as soon as it was ‘painted’ as a target. What is far more likely is that an older, less sophisticated system such as an SA 11 (NATO codename ‘Grail’) or something similar was involved. Such systems are known to be in the hands of the separatists who may or may not have the capability to operate the system effectively. There is clear evidence that Russian military equipment is making its way across the border between Russia and Ukraine and the Ukrainian military may have lost some SA 11s during Russia’s occupation of Ukraine-Crimea.
It is equally unlikely to have been the responsibility of the Ukrainian military. Two Ukrainian military aircraft have been lost over the past 48 hours to missiles fired either from within the separatist area or possibly even from over the border in Russia. There has certainly been a clear escalation over the past few days and there can be little doubt Moscow is pulling the strings.
Last week I published a piece for the RUSI Journal entitled “Ukraine: Understanding Russia”. In the article I tried to look at the conflict from the Russian viewpoint because too often other Europeans simply impose their assumptions on Russia. Equally, I am no apologist for Russia. My fellow sitting on the fence Europeans trying to explain Russian aggression away at almost any cost also have to look hard at themselves. For example, how can France possibly sell two state-of-the-art amphibious attack ships to a country that is creating and managing such a conflict in twenty-first century Europe?
Of course Russia did not want this awful disaster to happen and President Putin rightly called President Obama the moment he heard of the disaster. However, the bottom-line is this; Moscow must bear some of the responsibility for this disaster. In 2014 it is Moscow that has created the conditions which has led to the loss of a civilian airliner carrying 295 innocent people to a surface-to-air missile over European airspace by fuelling the crisis and arming the separatists. In 2014 only Russia can create the conditions for a peaceful resolution to this conflict by insisting on and joining the EU to help craft a negotiated constitutional settlement for a Ukraine at peace with itself and its neighbours. To make that happen Moscow must stop its efforts to de-stabilise the Kiev regime and begin to behave in a manner befitting the Great Power Russia is.
Sadly, I fear I may be witnessing quite the reverse. Indeed, Moscow could well be on the verge of launching a classically Russian ‘August’ stratagem. In 2008 Moscow waited until the midst of the European summer holidays to launch its invasion of Georgia. Russian forces are now again building up on Ukraine’s border, increased volumes of Russian military supplies and advisers are crossing the border into Ukraine in support of the separatists and more aggressive action is already evident.
If Moscow has any sense of the damage it is doing to Europe but above all to Russia itself the loss of MH 17 must be pause for reflection. At the very least Russia owes such reflection to the grieving relatives of the people past whom I walked today who are now the unwitting victims, the lost souls to a the ridiculous and tragic theatre of Russia’s twenty-first century insidious Machtpolitik.
MH 17: Russia stop this madness!