As the world awaits the findings of the international investigation into the crash of MH17, we asked a panel of experts for their thoughts on how the investigation might change the situation on the ground in Ukraine.
A tourist reads a Malaysian newspaper with reports about the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that crashed in eastern Ukraine. Photo: AFP.
Four days after the MH17 tragedy, it is not yet clear who should be held responsible for it and how the Boeing 777 crash will change the unstable situation in Ukraine. The only thing that seems to bring together all the international actors at the moment is general agreement that a full-fledged international and independent investigation of the plane crash should be carried out.
Russian President Putin has expressed his readiness to do everything in his power to move the conflict in Ukraine from the military phase to the negotiating phase and influence the separatists. He stated that everything possible must be done to ensure that international experts can work in safety at the crash site. Addressing the Russian Security Council on Tuesday, he said: “We will do everything in our power to support a full-fledged transparent independent investigation. We are called on to pressure the separatists. I repeat once again, that we will, of course, do everything depending on us, but this is not enough.”
The investigation may not only show who was really responsible for the MH17 attack but also might influence the way Russia and the West will interact in the future. Another possibility, according to some experts, is that no matter what a commission will find out, everyone will continue to blame Russian officials for what has happened - if not for the missile strike itself, then for creating the conditions under which it became possible.
Russia Direct asked Russian and foreign experts to share their opinion on these points and analyze how the situation will develop in the near future.
James Carden, contributing editor to The American Conservative magazine, former Advisor to the US-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department.
If the investigation concludes that there was indeed a measure of Russian complicity in the tragic events surrounding the downing of flight MH17, then that will almost certainly negatively influence [Russia-West] relations over the short to medium term. But I suspect, as happened in the aftermath of the USSR's downing of KAL flight 007 in 1983, that geopolitics and national interests will, as they usually do, intervene and the West and Russia will attempt a rapprochement if not by the end of President Obama's second term, then at least by the end of his predecessor's first 100 days in office.
Given the strong rhetoric emanating out of the U.S. and Western Europe I don't think that Russia will be able to minimize the possibility of being held responsible for the tragedy, even after OSCE releases the results of the investigation. While the outrage is understandable given the horrific loss of lives, let's say – hypothetically – that the OSCE clears Russia of any complicity in the matter. Should Mr. Putin wait by his phone for the apologies to start rolling in? He should not. The position of the West would simply shift from blaming Russia for the actual crash, to blaming Russia for creating the conditions that led to it, that is the ongoing Ukrainian conflict. Responsibility for the downing of MH17 is not something for which the Russian government is going to escape censure for, regardless of where the OSCE investigation leads.
Piotr Kościński, Head of the Eastern Program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
The possible investigation of the Malaysian Boeing tragedy will strongly influence the future of Russia-West relations. But certainly, it will be difficult to determine the perpetrators of the attack, because the separatists in Eastern Ukraine are hindering the investigation; for example, they have removed some parts of the aircraft. They also without any control removed bodies of the victims. It’s a certainty that the investigation will be very difficult. But I believe that Russia and the United States already know very well who fired the rocket. If Russians shot down the plane, it will not be possible to minimize the possibility of blaming Russia. Anyway, we need strong evidence of what has happened.
Pavel Verkhniatskyi, Director of the Kiev-based Center for Operational Strategic Analysis (COSA)
The Boeing 777 crash in Ukraine became a turning point in the Ukrainian crisis and in Russia’s relations with the West. The world community does not take Russian statements seriously anymore given how different were Russia’s actions and statements after the annexation of Crimea. Now, the trust towards Russia is minimal.
The international investigation will take a lot of time and it will be good if it reaches a definite conclusion. If separatists are responsible for the missile strike, Russia will find itself in more political isolation, Ukraine will get a chance to ask the West for more support and the separatist commander, Igor Girkin (using the pseudonym Igor Strelkov), will be declared an international terrorist. If it turns out that the government in Kiev carried out the attack of the Malaysian plane, which is quite doubtful, it will suffer serious political pressure from the international community. The results of the investigation of the MH17 crash will put one of the sides in a role of “defendant” who will be judged by other international actors. However, if there is no clear evidence provided, the information war between Russia and the West will continue.
Paul A. Goble, American analyst, former special adviser on Soviet Nationality Issues and Baltic affairs to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, former CIA analyst, former senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The investigation into the Malaysian plane disaster has the potential to exacerbate relations between Moscow and the West even further. Not only is there the possibility that evidence will be found to confirm what many now believe, namely that the plane was shot down by pro-Moscow militants using a weapons system the Russian military provided them in the mistaken belief that it was a Ukrainian military plane, but it may also find evidence that these same militants have tried to cover up what they did.
There has been some indication of that already, and the international investigation will certainly focus on that. In many Western countries, a cover-up is sometimes viewed as worse than the crime it is intended to conceal. If, as the investigation proceeds, there is any evidence that such an effort was conducted either by the militants or by their Russian supporters that will be taken as confirmation of what many now think.
Consequently, despite the apparent assumption in Moscow that an investigation will help the Russian cause, the result may be exactly the opposite – even if the investigation does not find “a smoking gun.” There are many differences between the way the media and public opinion function in Russia as opposed to the West. This difference may matter far more than anyone now imagines.