Based on historical precedent, the only way to minimize the grave implications of the Malaysian Boeing crash for Russia is to contribute to an objective and honest investigation into the accident.
A boy places flowers outside the Dutch embassy in Moscow on July 18 to express his condolences to the relatives of the victims of the Malaysian Boeing crash. Photo: Reuters
The Malaysian Boeing crash near Donetsk once again confirmed that the 21st century has taken up, from its predecessor, the sad baton of civil disasters that accompany military conflicts and military confrontations. Episodes involving the sinking of passenger ships and the downing of airplanes have always stood apart in the sad statistics of military conflicts, euphemistically referred to as “collateral damage.”
The number of victims and the apparent innocence of all the passengers who were often the inhabitants of different countries, located thousands of miles from the source of confrontation, have a powerful influence on public opinion and often (though not always) have forced politicians to take decisive measures.
History tells us about several such tragedies, differing in their origins and political consequences.
In the first half of the 20th century, episodes of military strikes against peaceful targets for the first time acquired a mass character, with the targets of the attacks usually being marine passenger vessels. A distinctive feature of this period was that such disasters occurred only during major wars. Passenger ships suffered from torpedo attacks, naval mines and aerial bombs. With the development of civil aviation, starting in the 1950s, the usual victims of missile attacks, onboard explosions or terrorist hijackings became passenger aircraft.
Maritime disasters have greatly outnumbered, by the number of victims, aircraft incidents. The largest maritime tragedies in history were the sinking of the German ships Goya (sunk in April 1945, with 7,000 victims aboard, of which only 200 were military) and the Wilhelm Gustloff (sunk in January 1945, according to various estimates taking the lives of between 5,300 to 9,000 people, including several thousand children that were being evacuated).
In both cases, the causes of death were attacks on the ships by Soviet submarine captains who considered the Goya and Gustloff as legitimate military targets. World War II was coming to an end at this time, and the sinking of the ships had no serious political consequences.
The infamous catastrophe of the First World War – the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania by a German torpedo in May 1915 – claimed the lives of 1,200 people. The political significance of this event was the fact that the deaths of a few dozen Americans, who were onboard, could have forced America to declare war on Germany.
However, after an official apology from Berlin, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson agreed to “swallow” this offense, and the American entry into the war came only two years later, after a new series of German submarine attacks made directly on American ships.
From aircraft incidents to onboard terrorist attacks
The second half of the 20th century showed that air passenger transport could suffer from armed attacks even in peacetime. Several aircraft were shot down as a result of errors made during military exercises. In 1962, a Soviet TU-104 was shot down near Khabarovsk, likely the result of an accidental strike by an air defense missile, leading to the deaths of 86 people. In 2001, flying over the Black Sea, a passenger plane of Sibir Airlines, traveling from Israel to Novosibirsk, was shot down. Seventy-eight people became victims of an error committed by the Ukrainian military, which was conducting training of their S-200 missile complexes.
Another type of such tragedies include several episodes during the Cold War, when the Soviet Air Force shot down or forced to land foreign passenger planes that had violated Soviet airspace. The most tragic of these episodes was the destruction in 1983 of a South Korean Boeing with 269 passengers on board (among them a U.S. congressman).
This for the USSR had the gravest consequences, in the form of American sanctions and increasing external political pressure. It should be noted here that this tragedy was caused not only by Soviet obsessive spy hysteria, viewing any violation of the USSR’s airspace as the machinations of the CIA, but also the real strange behavior of the pilots in the Korean airliner, which did not respond to signals from Soviet interceptor aircraft.
The destruction of passenger aircraft, as a result of onboard terrorist attacks, constitute another sad type of similar catastrophes. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, which led to the deaths of nearly three thousand people (including those killed in the collapsed buildings) – currently represent the pinnacle in the history of air terrorism, in terms of the number of victims and the scale of the political consequences.
We can debate whether or not the September 11 attacks created a new reality in international relations, but we can definitely say they did lead to a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy.
Of the smaller-scale terrorist attacks, the greatest infamy was achieved by the 1988 plane crash over Lockerbie in Scotland, in which 270 people were killed. An international investigation showed that the explosion of the Pan American Boeing aircraft, flying from London to New York, was organized by Libyan terrorists, who had the support of senior government officials of that country.
As a result, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions against Libya, which were removed only after the Gaddafi government had admitted its guilt and paid compensation to families of the victims.
External attacks: Random aircraft destruction
And finally, we have the last type of aircraft accidents, involving external attacks – the deliberate or, more often, random destruction of passenger planes flying in the vicinity of combat zones. The tragedy near Donetsk, regardless of the outcome of the investigation as to its causes, we can safely classify in this category.
We can also recall here the episode in 1988, when a missile launched from an American cruiser in the Persian Gulf shot down an Iranian passenger airplane with 290 people on board. The American military, which mistook the passenger plane for a military craft, later admitted their mistake and paid compensation to the families of the victims.
However, in Iran, the common view is that the United States was actually an ally of Iraq, which was at war with Iran, and the airplane was shot down not by accident, but by design. Anyway, this disaster had no consequences beyond the worsening of U.S.-Iranian relations.
Why the Malaysian air crash will force Russia to act
A woman cries at Kuala Lumpur International Airport as she waits for more information about the crashed plane, on July 18. Photo: Reuters
Based on the available historical experience, what can we say about the possible consequences of the tragedy near Donetsk?
First, we should note its uniqueness: Never before had civil aircraft, flying at such a great altitude, become a target of accidental or deliberate attacks originating from the combat zone. Unfortunately, today there are many such areas in the world, and even if the warring parties still do not have these types of missiles or military aircraft, who can guarantee they will not acquire them, sooner or later? In such a situation, we will have to change civil aviation routes not only over Ukraine, but also over Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other nations.
Second, history shows that these kinds of catastrophes could become a reason for taking some serious political decisions, including international sanctions, and even retaliatory military actions, but only if the perpetrators have been established with a sufficient degree of credibility and a malicious nature of the attack on peaceful targets was proven beyond any doubt. This incident over Donetsk, obviously, cannot be classified as an intentional attack, and hopefully, it will not lead to a rapid escalation of the political crisis.
Third, according to the flow of information during the first hours after the tragedy, a full-fledged independent international investigation cannot take place, as it will simply become grounds for opposing ideologically motivated interpretations of what happened. Such divergence in interpretations will only deepen the gulf emerging in Russian-American relations, and create a major obstacle to the normalization of relations between Russia and European countries.
The world may blame Russia, if not by the missile strike, then for creating the conditions under which it was made possible. Accordingly, only full cooperation in an honest and objective investigation of the tragedy will allow Russia any kind of exit from this situation.