Shooting down of Malaysia Airlines plane likely to have significant impact on Ukraine crisis

Analysts question what effect the shooting down of MH17 will have on the Ukraine crisis, but China is likely to remain on the sidelines

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 July, 2014, 1:52am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 July, 2014, 2:18am

The shooting down of a Malaysian commercial airliner over Ukraine could dramatically broaden the Ukrainian crisis, even before it is determined who bears responsibility.

What has been a months-long shooting war between the US-backed government in Kiev and Russian-supported separatists - and a war of words and sanctions between the West and Russia - now includes the deaths of nearly 300 people from a variety of countries.

"This is a new element that nobody expected," said James Collins, a former US ambassador to Russia, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It's one of those events ... that can have unpredicted negative or positive consequences."

On the negative side, it marks a clear escalation of both firepower and the willingness to use it that could draw the patrons of both sides into more overt participation on the ground, and more direct confrontation with each other.

Damon Wilson, an expert on Ukraine at the Atlantic Council, said that evidence tying the downing to the separatists, and by extension their Russian backers, would likely fundamentally alter the international community's view of the conflict.

World leaders, including among US allies in Europe, who had seen the conflict as a regional one and been reluctant to turn on Moscow, could be forced to reassess their position, said Wilson, who worked on European policy at the White House between 2007 and 2009. "It's pretty difficult to continue playing that game if you have clear Russian fingerprints on the shooting down of a civilian airliner," he said.

But mainland scholars said Beijing was likely to maintain its wait-and-see attitude despite the new developments.

"The crash, no matter who is to blame for it, showed the Ukraine crisis had not been brought under control as President Poroshenko promised. Instead, the Ukraine government has lost control of the crisis," said Tian Chunsheng , a Russian affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Even if most of the evidence pointed to a particular party, China would stay neutral in the Ukraine crisis, said Tian. "Unlike the MH370 tragedy, there were not many Chinese citizens on board MH17… [and] geographically the Ukraine crisis is distant from China ," she said. "China is not likely to get itself involved in the crisis actively."

Zhang Jianrong, a Russian specialist at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, agreed the crash would complicate the Ukraine crisis.

"China will avoid naming any party who is to blame for the crash, and will condemn the action of shooting down a civilian aircraft instead," Zhang said.

The official Xinhua news agency said in an English-language commentary that officials from the United States, Australia and other Western countries had jumped to conclusions in pointing their fingers at the rebels in eastern Ukraine and for blaming Russia for the escalating violence.

The news agency said the top priority at the moment was to cooperate to "find out the real culprits, if any".

Both the Ukrainian government and the separatists pointed the finger at each other, and Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Kiev, though in a distinctly roundabout fashion, saying that if it wasn't fighting the separatists that had taken over much of the country's east, no one would be shooting.

The United States and its allies were hesitant to quickly assign blame, and there was no overt suggestion that a civilian aircraft had been intentionally targeted. But there was a clear undercurrent in the Western response that the separatists were believed to be responsible.

But former envoy Collins and others suggested that the shocking nature of the shooting could also be a wake-up call to all involved. "It may bring certain people to decide that some different approach is needed because this is really getting out of hand," Collins said. "All of a sudden, it could mean a lot more people talking about [the Ukraine situation] and saying enough is enough."

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a TV interview that "if there is clear evidence linking Russia ... that should inspire the Europeans to do much more" to punish Russia and assist the Ukrainian government.

Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein said after an intelligence briefing on Capitol Hill that "we hope to have more information within the next day or so."

But, she said, "if evidence emerges that Russia was involved, that would obviously be extremely concerning."

Collins emphasised that "nobody knows the facts yet, other than the obvious one that a plane went down with 300 people. It clearly didn't just fall out of the sky."

The West has charged Russia with sending increasingly sophisticated weapons into eastern Ukraine. As recently as Wednesday, when President Barack Obama announced stepped-up sanctions against Moscow, officials cited extensive surveillance showing new Russian arms shipments and additional Russian troops deployed to the border.

"While we do not yet have all the facts, we do know that this incident occurred in the context of a crisis in Ukraine that is fuelled by Russian support for the separatists, including through arms, materiel and training," the White House said in a statement.

US officials said that analysts at the CIA and other intelligence agencies were scrutinising intercepted communications, satellite imagery and other information in an effort to determine who fired the missile that struck the Malaysian aircraft.

The officials noted that the conflict had been an area of intense focus for US spy agencies, which have stepped up efforts to monitor communications among rebel units as well as aerial surveillance to track positions of Russian-backed forces.

The crash site is in territory controlled by the separatists, and Putin offered assistance in investigating. The United States and its allies also offered help, and expressed concern that the site would be tampered with before facts were determined.