Will MH17 tragedy shock Europe into action on Ukraine?

The fighting in eastern Ukraine has been largely on the periphery for most Europeans. But the deaths of 298 airline passengers has brought it into urgent focus.

Phil Nijhuis/AP
A relative of passengers on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 cries as he waits on a bus at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam Thursday to receive more information about airliner's fate.

While it’s still unclear who shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, killing nearly 300 people over eastern Ukraine, one thing is certain: A crisis that seemed abstract and far away to many Europeans has suddenly – and violently – hit close to home.

European response may not be immediate, as many facts have yet to be established about what appears to have been a mistaken targeting of the commercial airliner, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. It is not yet known whether pro-Russian separatists in control of the area over which the plane flew were responsible, or if Moscow supplied or aided in the supply of the missile used in the attack.

Still, the disaster is likely to galvanize European opinion about the eight-month conflict, prompting greater public questioning about what is actually happening in eastern Ukraine and what European leaders could be doing to address it.

Smoke in Ukraine

More than half of the 298 victims, over 150 confirmed so far, are Dutch. In Amsterdam, where the flight originated, stricken relatives of passengers clutched one another at Schiphol Airport; the anguished expression of an older gentleman, on a special bus for relatives of the victims, has become a powerful symbol of Europe’s grief.

The Netherlands has declared a day of national mourning, with flags flying at half mast. Many passengers' nationalities have yet to be identified, but so far, nine were reported to be British, four German, and four Belgian, along with Australian, Malaysian, and Filipino victims – their passports strewn across the grassy field where the aircraft crashed.

Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the UK, notes that the downing would be the biggest act of terror in modern European history, exceeding the Madrid train bombing of 2004. “In that context, it is a shocking moment for the European people,” he says.

Ukrainian government officials immediately blamed pro-Russian rebels, who they say have brought down other military aircraft in recent days. The rebels have denied launching the surface-to-air missile that hit the plane, whose origins are under question. Russia has also denied any role, instead blaming the central Ukraine government for the tragedy.

European dismay could be compounded if Russian “proxies” are in fact found to be behind the tragedy, says Mr. Joshi. The incident comes amid growing Western concern that Russia is still stoking military escalation in eastern Ukraine. Both the US and the EU announced new sanctions this week. The EU announced after a summit Wednesday that it would also establish a list of individuals and entities who are financially or materially supporting actions against Ukraine by the end of July.

This morning, at a previously scheduled news conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for an immediate cease-fire so that “those responsible are brought to justice," she said. "There are many indications that the plane was shot down so we have to take things very seriously."

She said Russia had a clear responsibility in that cease-fire, but did not hint at new sanctions from Europe.

Germany’s response is key. While Ms. Merkel has talked tough about the responsibility Russia bears for reducing tensions, Germany has moved more cautiously than many American allies would like. Like other European nations, Germany's proximity and deep economic ties to Russia allow it to hurt Russia via sanctions, but also increase its own vulnerability to Russian counter-sanctions.

A shock to Europe

Still, the loss of so many innocent lives Thursday – regular citizens visiting family abroad, en route to an AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia, or on long-planned dream vacations – could harden public opinion. More than 15,000 people have expressed their condolences on a webpage established in the Netherlands.

It might also lower tolerance for nations’ individual dealings with Russia, such as France’s planned delivery of Mistral amphibious assault ships to Russia. Italy's candidate to be the top EU policy chief was reportedly rejected by Eastern European countries that want a tougher European reaction to Russia at the EU summit this week.

Editorials across the Continent called this a game-changer. If pro-Russian rebels did shoot down flight MH17, “that may be their death knell,” wrote the leading Dutch daily De Volkskrant this morning, according to a roundup of the major newspapers translated from Dutch.

In an editorial in the conservative Le Figaro in France, Arnaud de la Grange called the incident a “turning point in the crisis in Ukraine.”

“If it’s recognized that the Boeing 777 which fell in eastern Ukraine was hit by a missile, there will be a 'before' and 'after' July 17,” he writes. “These victims are from many countries. The emotion and anger will be international.”

European leaders have called for urgent inquiries. Britain is asking for an international investigation, expected to be discussed today at the United Nations Security Council in New York. And some are openly expressing doubt over Russian claims that it is innocent. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted last night: "There have been signs of Russia supplying separatists also with fairly advanced surface-to-air systems recently. Horrible."

Former British ambassador to Moscow Sir Andrew Wood told BBC Radio yesterday: "No one knows who fired this missile, but assuming that the only credible explanation is that it is the Russian separatist forces, the risk of still further sanctions against Russia must be high and well-deserved,” he said.

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