The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, most likely from a BUK-M1 surface-to-air missile system, is a tragedy beyond words. 298 innocent lives were needlessly lost, connecting the outside world to the reality of the conflict between Ukraine’s military and Russian proxies. Although many questions remain unanswered, Russia’s role and responsibility cannot be denied, as professionally trained personnel are required to operate this sophisticated missile launcher. There is ample evidence demonstrating Russia supplied both personnel and equipment across the porous border prior to this horrific act.
To make matters worse, family members have suffered a double tragedy as their loved ones have been denied the dignity they deserve. A week has passed since the plane’s downing but many of the victims’ bodies continue to lie scattered in the sunflower and wheat fields surrounding the crash site. For many of the family members, the search for answers will be difficult. Closure will likely forever remain elusive. In addition, Russian-backed armed militants continue to prevent full access to investigators and forensic specialists within a ten-kilometre radius of the crash site, jeopardizing the ability to conduct a proper international investigation.
The downing of MH17, however, is not the first airplane to be shot down during the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. On June 14, a military transport plane was downed, killing all 49 Ukrainian servicemen onboard. On July 23, two Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jets were also destroyed over rebel-held territory. In total, fourteen aircraft have been either shot down or damaged so far. One cannot help but ask whether the world’s reaction would have been different if MH17 turned out to be another Ukrainian military aircraft?
Due to MH17, voices in Ukraine and around the world have renewed their calls for hard-hitting sectoral sanctions against Russia while others are demanding lethal military aid be sent to Ukraine. Regrettably, there has been little discussion, at least publicly, about the repercussions of such actions. Even if the EU and the United States were on the same page and implemented sectoral sanctions, would Russia change course? Would the Kremlin withdraw its support for the armed mercenaries? Would the Europeans and Americans be willing to cope with the economic fallout? Equally important, what are the short, medium, and long-term consequences for European and international security (e.g., Iran’s nuclear program, resolving the ongoing war in Syria)? The current discourse is completely blocking any compromise. Attempts at resolution have been immediately followed by a flare-up of tensions. De-escalation is becoming hostage to agitated public opinion and propaganda.
The international community must realize that the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine is not subsiding. Rather, the conflict is intensifying and positions are becoming more entrenched. Increasing tensions and rigid positions will only lead in one direction. To be blunt, the ongoing violence is showing all the signs characteristic of a path leading towards a protracted intractable conflict. This worst-case scenario is appearing more realistic day by day. On the one hand, Ukraine’s military has been plagued by logic-defying troop reductions, incompetence, and corruption, contributing to the army’s lack of combat readiness. Kyiv clearly lacks the military strength to reverse all the territory gains made by Russian-backed militias. On the other hand, the Kremlin continues to foment hostilities by financing and arming militants. No real opposition has been mounted to counter the Kremlin’s tactics.
When considering what happens next, it is worth recalling other neglected (and often ignored) so-called “frozen” conflicts, namely Nagorny Karabakh and Transdniestria. More than twenty years have passed since widespread violence has subsided but continued irresolution has hardened grievances and encouraged inertia. Furthermore, the stalemate in these conflict zones allows Russia to hold the countries involved at ransom while simultaneously preventing their ability to pursue independent development paths. In fact, Russia has a vested interest in sustaining the status quo. Kyiv and the international community need to draw lessons from these conflicts so that the situation in eastern Ukraine does not follow a similar path.
Diplomatic efforts must also be intensified in order to assist Ukraine’s government with dealing with the ever-worsening humanitarian crisis due to the thousands of people fleeing from the violence. As a result of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea, the number of registered “Internally Displaced Persons” (IDPs) has grown to over 95,000 people. According to UNHCR estimates, roughly a third of displaced people are children. These figures are not only growing daily but are also likely underreported, as many people have been unable to formally register due to shortcomings and gaps in the government’s response. In reality, many have received little or no support from the government when fleeing their homes. Instead these people have largely relied on local civil society groups, volunteers, and churches to provide them with housing, food, and clothing. Many problems have also been reported regarding access to medical and education services and other social allocations.
Immediate assistance to those evacuating the conflict zone is urgently needed. All efforts must be taken to ensure Ukraine’s government is able to create a comprehensive coordinated response. Once the government has a long-term plan for displaced people in place, support and assistance from the international community must be forthcoming. If Ukraine’s government is unable to complete this urgent task and hostilities persist, peoples’ rights will continue to be violated. Moreover, if the situation develops into a protracted intractable conflict, government resources and attention will continue to be drawn away from much-needed reform initiatives.
Simply, all diplomatic resources must be utilized in an effort to prevent another protracted intractable conflict. The situation in eastern Ukraine must not be allowed to turn into another Nagorny Karabakh or Transdniestria. It is not too late. How many lives must be lost before the obvious should be done? How many civilians must die before strategies need to be reformulated? Where is the diplomacy? Or, has it too been forgotten?
By Nick Krawetz