If Russia wants the world to view it as a great power, it needs to do a better job of assuming responsibility for its role in the MH17 disaster.
MH17 flight recovery team members talk to each as they are guarded by pro-Russian rebel fighter' in one of the areas of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 plane crash in the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014. Photo: AP
For a very different take read: "The MH17 tragedy has become a geopolitical game"
The twelve months since the Malaysia Airlines MH17 catastrophe in the skies over eastern Ukraine have shown that the price of political miscalculation in the modern world is far greater than it was decades or centuries ago.
The tragedy has not been forgotten. An international investigation closely monitored by the media is ongoing, and various options for bringing to justice those responsible for the death of the 298 passengers and crewmembers are being discussed. And that is despite the fact that almost no one remembers the hundreds or even thousands of victims of armed conflict across Africa or the Middle East, reports of which are a near daily occurrence.
To all appearances, it is not just that the victims of MH17 included many Europeans, Australians and citizens of other developed countries. The site of the tragedy, which until quite recently had been a peaceful, prosperous place, far from any known “hot spot,” made what happened even more extraordinary.
The investigation into the incident, which has involved a variety of technical experts, journalists and politicians representing different sides of the Ukrainian conflict, has not only given rise to many versions of the tragedy, but also underlined one very unpleasant fact for Russia. Until the armed conflict on its borders dies down for good, with no sporadic flare-ups, it will be very difficult for the country to assert its international reputation as a great power.
The most important criterion for membership of today’s club of “responsible great powers” is the ability to prevent armed conflict in one’s immediate vicinity. Success in the 21st century is measured not only in terms of GDP per capita and level of technological development, but also the capacity to ensure stability and security in one’s zone of responsibility (extending, in the case of the great powers, beyond state borders).
Russia’s alleged involvement in the MH17 disaster has done serious damage to the country’s international image over the past year. The accusation has not gone away despite the best efforts of counter-propaganda and public diplomacy. The catastrophe has been used as symbolic confirmation of Russia’s informational support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine, not to mention political and military. In providing such assistance, Russia is undermining its international positions, making them weak and vulnerable.
Failure to “wash off” even the most tenuous link to a tragedy that cost the lives of several hundred innocent people can have extremely serious consequences in today’s world. It can, figuratively speaking, demote a country to the “second division” of the global system, and no amount of past achievements, natural resources or nuclear potential can prevent it.
The reality of the threat is evinced by the extreme caution shown by international experts and politicians in their assessment of what happened. As yet no data from U.S. reconnaissance satellites have been made public — a fact often cited by Russian propagandists as proof of Ukraine’s guilt, which the United States is allegedly intent on concealing.
But it is far more likely that by withholding vital information, the United States is covering not Ukraine, but Russia. In spite of everything, Washington does not want to utterly and decisively humiliate the Kremlin and drive Russia into a corner. Neither the United States nor Europe needs a gap in the global system the size of one-fifth of the Earth’s land area.
The lesson that politicians need to draw from MH17 and its consequences is that military methods in the modern world cannot be used to resolve international and internal conflicts without the warring parties and their surroundings becoming “barbarized.” It is foolish to hope that while heavy fighting rages in the towns and cities of eastern Ukraine, politicians just a few hundred kilometers west or east will feign adherence to the “European choice” or the “equitable multipolar world order.” That’s not how it is, and the victims of MH17 will long serve as a vivid reminder of that.
An honorable way out for Russia, as a great power, would be to stop the petty blame game with Ukraine and to openly admit its indirect culpability for what happened. Was it not Russia’s political and diplomatic miscalculations that ultimately led to civil war and the shooting down of a civilian plane in a Russian-speaking area of a neighboring country?
Is it really worth pointing the finger of blame at the United States or some other external force for fomenting the Ukrainian crisis? After all, such incriminations confer a degree of omnipotence that the accused do not and cannot possibly possess.
On the occasion of the first anniversary of the MH17 disaster, the Russian authorities should think about some form of compensation for the families of the victims, even if it sets the treasury back hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s possible that some of Russia’s foes might consider such compensation as an admission of guilt, but in reality it would be confirmation of Russia’s ability as a great power to assume responsibility for a tragedy that resulted partly from its insufficiently coherent policy in a region that even official government documents refer to as a “zone of foreign policy interests.”
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.