Malaysia Airlines crash: How can we hold Putin to account?

By Charles Crawford
July 20th, 2014

The hours drift into days following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine. Yet there is no difficulty in identifying those responsible for this outrage. Russian military intelligence (GRU) operatives and technicians are swarming over eastern Ukraine and probably much of the rest of the country, monitoring in real time what is happening. Some are Russian troops operating illegally in Ukraine. Others are Ukrainians (or motley mercenaries from Serbia and elsewhere) on the GRU payroll.

The cause of the attack on the plane will have been known immediately to the Russian side. Missiles capable of hitting aircraft at that altitude cannot be fired without complex codes and technical support. The Russians know everything about the attack, down to the serial number of the missile and the names and breakfast rations of the people who ordered the attack. The Russians also know exactly what links there are (if any) between the people who fired the missile and their own GRU command structures.

The Americans will know a lot of this, too. We may not like global IT surveillance, but it resolves situations like this. Washington is doubtless poring through myriad satellite images and thousands of conversations in Russian military slang to establish in minute detail what happened when the missile was fired and who ordered it. Likewise, the Ukrainians know plenty – they do not have the GRU’s resources, but they are highly motivated to follow what the “rebels” and “separatists” are doing.

The issue, in short, is not any doubt about what actually happened. It is that the Russians – who know the most about it – are refusing to hand over to the world everything they know. Nor are they throwing their weight behind a rapid international effort to help the victims’ families by sealing and investigating the crash area in a normal way.

Instead of a principled, helpful and sensitive response from Moscow, we see a macabre spectacle of diplomatic bluster and evasion while the crash site is despoiled and manipulated. Murky alterations to the Wikipedia MH17 site are traced to Russian official buildings. Bodies are piled in unguarded railway refrigerator wagons. International officials are threatened at gunpoint by belligerent fanatics loyal to Moscow.

Poland has not been happy with the Russian performance following the plane crash at Smolensk in 2010 that killed President Lech Kaczynski and scores of senior Poles en route to a memorial service for the Katyn massacres. But Russia insists that under international law it should take the lead in investigating that disaster, as the plane crashed on Russian territory.

Here, Russia has a very different problem: the plane crashed in Ukraine. Moscow therefore faces the indignation and contempt of a wide range of countries for its handling of this crisis, above all for not using all its influence to push the rebels out of the way so that normal international procedures can take place.

This vile policy, on the part of permanent member of the UN Security Council, creates dilemmas for the rest of us – not least because Moscow’s behaviour and tone go way beyond anything normal or honourable, as understood under the international rules for such incidents that Russia itself helped to draft.

The Americans are in a difficult position. If they know that Russia’s GRU personnel were closely involved in the decision to attack the plane, this means that the highest political levels in Moscow carry direct command responsibility.

What to do with that information? If it is made public, calls for strong action against Putin and his team will swell in Washington and around the world. Yet what action might make a positive difference? More sanctions? Diplomatic isolation? Or would it be better to use this information only in tough private conversations with the Russians, in the hope of de-escalating the crisis and striking a strategic deal on Ukraine?

Under President Obama, US leadership has been scaled right back, in large part to avoid taking such awkward decisions. Obama none the less has a point in not wanting to get too far ahead of the USA’s dithering European allies – hence his typically detached assertion that it is up for Europe to “wake up” and consider tougher measures against Moscow. European leaders including David Cameron pile on the rhetoric (“Putin is a pariah”; “The world’s eyes are on Moscow”; “Europe and the West must fundamentally change their approach to Russia”) but without evincing any clear sense of what should be done when Russia digs in its heels.

The diplomatic problem is bad, and getting worse by the hour. What if it is established beyond any doubt that officers under Moscow’s command did have a hand in the murder of all those passengers? No one wants to say. But we can be sure that if GRU operatives are implicated in this catastrophe, under Putin’s leadership Moscow will do whatever it takes to deny any responsibility. If victims and their families are denied all human decency while feverish efforts are made to hide evidence of the crime, too bad.

The hardest challenge in diplomacy? Dealing with ruthless leaders who enjoy showing defiance based on a policy of “the worse, the better”.

  1. #1 by pulau_sibu on Sunday, 20 July 2014 - 11:17 pm

    send our troops to help the Ukraine army to fight Putin!

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Monday, 21 July 2014 - 12:11 am

    To hold Putin to account? No way unless Obama shows spine against Putin (like Bush Reagan or Kennedy facing down Khrushchev). That will require US Congressional unstinting support and less European allies’ resistance that in turn requires clear evidence that Separatists shot down MH17 deliberately & negligently under Russian sponsorship of state terrorism. Understand Putin’s psychology: he respects only toughness and hunkers down to strength – nothing else. Neither here nor there economic sanctions against 2 Russian banks (dealing with Putin & elites), peripheral energy firms and defence-related entities evince weakness. Dare to whack Gazprom main Russian energy supplier to Eurpoean alies and Ukraine and risk a convulsion in Oil prices?

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Monday, 21 July 2014 - 12:23 am

    For this reason, there is unlikely any quick fix to get either the back box or the bodies back and to have independent investigation going. Putin will need time to contaminate all evidence and with his KGB background will try spin the tragedy as being caused by Ukraine Kiev’s govt. For Putin’s greatest worry is that an independent investigation of MH17 will provide adverse inference against Russia’s sponsoring state terrorism that will in turn galvanise UN, European, international and more importantly Congress backing to Obama to take the toughest action ie economic sanctions that hit at the substratum of Russian energy/oil sector (short of military standoff of the Cuban Missile Crisis kind in Ukraine and other South Caucasus countries eg Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova of Russian incursions.

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Monday, 21 July 2014 - 1:00 am

    What’s Malaysia’s position vis-à-vis Putin & Russia? Well if we don’t blame our national carrier (MAS) surely we must blame the one who shot at our national carrier which is tantamount to shooting at us. Ya Moscow gave training to our “astronaut” (Dr Shukor) on Soyuz TMA-11 mission to fly to International Space Station in exchange for our purchase of 18 Sukhoi SU-30MKM jets. After MH17 are going to buy some more military equipment from Russia? If convincing evidence is shown of Russian complicity
    In downing MH17, we are to demonstrate before Russian embassy? When push comes to shove between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin who will we back?

  5. #5 by pulau_sibu on Monday, 21 July 2014 - 2:33 am

    US became an unexpected strong helper for boleh, else we are helpless in front of russia. what can perkasa do now to russia??

  6. #6 by ayllim on Monday, 21 July 2014 - 6:14 am

    LIOW WAS LYING when he said the route was believed to be safe.
    In April, the ICAO advised carriers to consider alternative routes.
    Last Monday, Eurocontrol – which coordinates air traffic across Europe – issued an official notice (NOTAM) which ‘strongly advises’ avoiding the airspace.
    More prudent airlines like British Airways and Qantas have been doing so for months, why not MAS?

  7. #7 by Bigjoe on Monday, 21 July 2014 - 8:56 am

    People still don’t get it. Its a golden opportunity for UMNO/BN to cut a deal with Putin to let him off the hook at least somewhat.

    UMNO/BN is looking to get something out of this from Putin for themselves in the end. Trusting Najib and UMNO/BN to get full compense for this tragedy.. Fat chance..

  8. #8 by Jeffrey on Monday, 21 July 2014 - 9:46 am

    Malaysia is in no position to say whether Putin/Russia is accountable or not in MH17 tragedy. We are but a cog in the larger geopolitical contest between US & Russia. Putin’s aim is to restore the glory of the previous Soviet Empire; his leverage is that when threatened he has the military/nuclear capabilities to ensure mutual assured destruction – and Russia supplies much of the gas used in Europe and monies to put in their banks. Obama’s objective is to stop him by ensuring the tragedy galvanizes international outrage. Nothing Malaysia says will affect the dynamics of this geopolitical contest between the 2 Powers using MH17 as flashpoint.

  9. #9 by Bigjoe on Monday, 21 July 2014 - 10:41 am

    Najib is again too pre-occupied with his own political capital rather than the job he has to do..

    What the hell is he doing demanding body return for burial by Aidil Fitri? The bodies are evidence of a potential international criminal trial – it should be handed to international team or our team of experts for examination and autopsy LAST WEEK, burial before Aidil Fitri is not even feasable even if it was handed over last week..

  10. #10 by Justice Ipsofacto on Monday, 21 July 2014 - 3:48 pm

    Ukraine is the centre of political manoeuvring by US and russia. US needs ukraine’s help to check russia and russia needs ukraine too – to serve as some kind of buffer against the west in the event of military conflict.

    And malaysia? We are have no direct interest in all of that. Perhaps indirect ones but even then the indirect interests arent too great to excite us.

    But now, with MH17 at the scene malaysia just waded into the scene and found itself at the centre of the conflict between the west and russia.

    What is likely to happen to us? I think we would be used as pawns by both sides to the conflict and will be kicked about from end to end. In other words, we can expect that liow and jib will be made to look like big international fools.

  11. #11 by burn on Monday, 21 July 2014 - 10:45 pm

    not to trust much on western medias. they’re like our medias that is control by the gomen. ukraine become messier after the coup de’tat that’s sponsored/supported by US and EU.

  12. #12 by Bunch of Suckers on Tuesday, 22 July 2014 - 8:39 am

    What a hypocrite???

    When USA shot down Italy Airliner and Iran Airliner, the entire world watched silently without a word and no sanctions!!!!!!!!!

    The International airliner bodies had repeatedly warned all airliners to avoid the route; yet the stupid airliner cruising the short route joyfully as to save time and fuel!!!

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