Malaysian plane downing: Will it change course of Ukraine conflict?

The downing of a Malaysian passenger plane by a surface-to-air missile over rebel-held Ukraine would seem to be a game-changer in the conflict. But security analysts hold out little expectation that will be the case. A wild card? Germany.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
Fire engines arrive at the crash site of a passenger plane near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine, as the sun sets on July 17.

The downing by missile fire of a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane over disputed eastern Ukraine Thursday, resulting in the deaths of all 295 people aboard, might seem at first blush to be a clear game-changer in the Ukrainian conflict that has raised Western-Russian tensions in recent months.

Yet as horrific and unacceptable as the tragedy is, the downing of the commercial airliner may not prove to be a watershed moment, doing little to change the course of the Ukrainian conflict, regional security experts say.

Russia’s interests in keeping the pot boiling in eastern Ukraine aren’t going to change because of this,” says Michael Desch, an expert in international security and US foreign policy at University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “And on our [US] side, we will initially deplore this as we should, but I don’t think it changes our interests or our resolve to do anything more decisive.”  

An early determination that separatist Ukrainian rebels downed the plane by using a Russia-provided weapons system could prompt a new round of economic sanctions on Russia or perhaps a European initiative to settle the conflict diplomatically, others say. Time will be a critical factor, they add. 

“From the get-go, you’re going to have different narratives concerning what really happened. It’s going to be the ‘he said, she said’ scenario,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “This could be the wake-up call where everyone says, ‘Whoa, this is really getting out of hand,’ and decides there needs to be a renewed push to get this [conflict in Ukraine] settled,” he says. Germany's reaction “in the next 48 hours,” he adds, will be key.

One problem is that until it becomes clear who fired the missile that Pentagon officials have concluded downed the civilian plane, laying blame and imposing consequences for the action will have to wait. Even when responsibility is determined, it’s unlikely it will turn out to have been anything other than a tragic mistake in a high-tension zone, Mr. Desch says. And that is likely to calm any impetus for action, he adds.

Desch says previous airliner shoot-down “mistakes” ultimately produced little in the way of consequences – including a Soviet jet fighter shooting down a South Korean airliner (with a member of the US Congress aboard) in 1983, and a US naval ship, the USS Vincennes, fired two surface-to-air missiles that brought down an Iranian airliner in 1988.

[Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph was modified to provide accurate information on the US downing of an Iranian airliner in 1988. The USS Vincennes, mistaking the airliner for an F-14 fighter jet, fired two surface-to-air missiles that destroyed the civilian plane.]

“Clearly, this will be a black eye for Russia if it turns out it shot down the airliner, or if a weapons system transferred to pro-Russian rebels caused this,” he says. “But I don’t think it changes the basic dynamics of what Russia is up to in eastern Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian government, which has had several military planes shot down by pro-Russian separatists in recent weeks (Ukrainian officials also accuse Russia of targeting and bringing down a transport plane last Friday and a military jet that crashed this week after being hit by a missile), was quick to call the destruction of the passenger jet “a terrorist act,” implicating the rebels it has been battling for months.

And pro-Russian separatist groups were just as quick to deny responsibility for the attack – although some intercepted but unconfirmed messages sent via social media suggest that rebels in possession of a sophisticated Russan-made anti-aircraft system may have shot down the Malaysian plane by mistake.

Efforts to investigate the crash and determine its cause will be hampered by the fact that the plane came down in rebel-held territory. The US has offered to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to send investigators to the crash site.

The UN Security Council plans to hold an open meeting on Friday to address the implications of the crash.

The Naval Academy’s Mr. Gvosdev says a Security Council session could be useful to keep the crash and the Ukrainian conflict on the international agenda. On the other hand, he says, any council effort to address the crash is likely to end up with “the US and Britain on one side and Russia on the other, with China on the sidelines,” and thus little that is productive.

But a quick and forceful response from German Chancellor Angela Merkel could have an impact where other action wouldn’t, Gvosdev says. The airliner tragedy – especially if caused by a missile fired or provided by a meddling Russia – could prompt Ms. Merkel to finally opt for tough sanctions on Russia, he says, or to conclude “enough is enough” and get out front on demanding a settlement of the Ukrainian conflict.

Still other experts say that, sadly, there should be little surprise that a tragedy of this magnitude occurred as a result of a conflict that has been allowed to fester and deepen without being addressed. 

"While we are still waiting on information about the cause of this Malaysian airlines crash, there are some underlying truths about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia worth understanding: When a nation violates international norms without grave consequences, there is every likelihood of a further miscalculation,” says Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Ms. Pletka, a frequent critic of President Obama’s foreign policy, says ultimately the president, whom she says is pulling back from traditional American involvement in global affairs, bears some responsibility in deteriorating conditions in many areas of the world.

Avoiding the conditions that may have led to the kind of “miscalculation” that perhaps occurred in eastern Ukraine “is why the US has historically  underwritten the international order,” she says. “Now that we've stepped back, it shouldn't surprise us that from Ukraine to Gaza to Iraq, bad people are doing ever worse things." 

For many people, however, questions about the Malaysian airliner tragedy are more basic: Who did this and why? And, perhaps, why was the airliner flying over a conflict zone anyway?

On social media. many were wondering why a commercial plane would have been flying over a known war zone where several military planes have been shot down recently. There was some speculation that the Malaysian airliner had shifted its flight path because of severe thunderstorms in the area. 

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