Phone Diplomacy in Ukraine Crisis Lifts Malaysian Leader’s Standing

New York Times
JULY 23, 2014

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Intervention on Flight 17 Pays Off

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — It was not an aide or a diplomat on the phone with pro-Russian rebels, trying to get them to relinquish the bodies and the “black boxes” from the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine — it was the leader of Malaysia himself.

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia played an unusual personal role, holding a series of cellphone conversations with a rebel leader and then coaching a Malaysian colonel on what to say as he passed through nearly a dozen rebel checkpoints on his way to the crash scene, according to a person who was with the prime minister much of the time.

Mr. Najib’s success has at least temporarily restored his standing at home, where his government was battered by accusations of incompetence after the disappearance in March of another Malaysia Airlines jet, Flight 370. The arrival of most of the bodies and the flight data recorders from Flight 17 at a Ukrainian military base on Tuesday brought an outpouring of relief and praise in Malaysia.

But Mr. Najib’s willingness to negotiate directly with Alexander Borodai, the rebel leader, has prompted disquiet outside the country about whether the prime minister had lent unwarranted legitimacy to a man the Ukrainian government has condemned as a terrorist.

Malaysian officials say Mr. Najib established a rapport with Mr. Borodai over the weekend, and finally reached an agreement with him on Monday for handing over the remains and the recorders, which the rebels had taken from the crash site, in territory they control near the Russian border. The plane, a Boeing 777-200 with 298 aboard, was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was struck by an antiaircraft missile on July 17.

Opposition politicians in Malaysia who had excoriated Mr. Najib through the spring over Flight 370 endorsed his actions on Wednesday at a special session of Parliament and in a series of earlier statements. A senior opposition politician, Lim Kit Siang, wrote on his blog that the prime minister “is to be commended for the breakthrough with the handover of the two black boxes.” And Lim Guan Eng, the secretary general of the Democratic Action Party, a major opposition bloc, said his party was “willing to stand together with the federal government to support their efforts to bring back the bodies to their families.”

Officials in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, insisted that Mr. Najib’s arrangement with Mr. Borodai did not involve any promise of formal diplomatic recognition or payment to the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Political analysts said that Mr. Najib’s domestic political bonanza depended partly on that remaining true.

“If it emerges that there are issues behind this deal, then things will be seen in a slightly different way,” said Bridget Welsh, a senior research associate at National Taiwan University who specializes in Malaysian politics.

The Malaysian delegation in Ukraine incurred the anger of many Ukrainians by using the honorific “excellency” in referring to Mr. Borodai, who styles himself the leader of a breakaway republic. But, at least in public, Mr. Najib has not used the term, referring to the rebel leader only as “Mr. Borodai.”

Few Malaysians have followed the Ukrainian conflict in detail, so the question of legitimizing Mr. Borodai, who is a Russian citizen, has barely been raised here. The overwhelming priority has been recovering the bodies of the 43 Malaysians who were on Flight 17, including two infants — an especially delicate matter in a mainly Muslim country where prompt, proper burial of the dead is a strong religious imperative.

“Over here, people don’t care how the deal was done,” said James Chin, a professor of political science at the Kuala Lumpur campus of Monash University. “All they care is that the bodies are coming back, so that the families have closure.”

But, Mr. Chin said, Mr. Najib’s political boost might not last long. When he announced the deal early Tuesday morning, Mr. Najib predicted that the bodies of Malaysians would be in their families’ hands by the end of Ramadan, which in Malaysia will be Sunday. But Dutch and Australian officials now say that it could take weeks or months to identify the remains, which are first being flown to a laboratory in the Netherlands.

“Now he’s smelling like roses, but I suspect it’ll end in tears,” Mr. Chin said of Mr. Najib.

The prime minister sharpened his criticism of the initial difficulties in recovering the bodies and data recorders in a speech to Parliament on Wednesday, but he continued to refrain from assigning blame for the downing of the aircraft.

For Mr. Najib, the loss of a second Malaysia Airlines jet in less than five months is an ordeal that began when he received a call at his Kuala Lumpur home late last Thursday telling him that Flight 17 had disappeared from the radar. The person who was with him for much of that night, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a ban on commenting publicly about the prime minister’s private activities, said Mr. Najib immediately summoned officials to meet him at an emergency response center at the capital’s airport.

Airport guards outside the response center were not prepared for the appearance of the prime minister’s motorcade, with its escort of armed guards on motorcycles, and initially refused to let it pass, while they tried to check with superiors by telephone, the person said. The prime minister’s security detail cut the wait short by bodily lifting the guards and carrying them to the side of the road, and then pushing up the heavy gate blocking the entrance road.

Mr. Najib was given Mr. Borodai’s cellphone number by someone whom Mr. Borodai trusted and who vouched for Mr. Najib, according to Malaysian officials. They declined to say whether the intermediary who set up the initial call was Russian.

Malaysia has long sought to avoid conspicuously taking sides in the rivalries among the United States, Russia and China, and many of its citizens are wary of American influence. While the Netherlands is a member of NATO, which many pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine see as a threat, Malaysia is a distant Southeast Asian nation that has stayed largely silent on the turmoil there.

Russia has invested years of effort in building up its relations with Malaysia, in which aviation has played a major role for more than a decade. Malaysia agreed to buy 18 Sukhoi fighter jets from Russia in May 2003, in a deal worth nearly $1 billion. In exchange, Russia agreed to train and transport to space Malaysia’s first astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, an orthopedic surgeon by profession who traveled to the International Space Station in 2007 and became a celebrated national hero, not least because he observed the Ramadan fasts in space under the guidance of a large team of religious experts.

At a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin in Vladivostok in 2012, Mr. Najib noted that he personally oversaw the deal for the Sukhoi jets, and added, “The time has come for us to broaden the relationship and to look into new areas of cooperative relationship with you.”

The deal to recover the recorders and remains from Flight 17 may be the richest political dividend Mr. Najib has yet reaped from that relationship.

Keith Bradsher and Chris Buckley reported from Kuala Lumpur, and David M. Herszenhorn from Kiev, Ukraine.

  1. #1 by pulau_sibu on Thursday, 24 July 2014 - 10:10 am

    do you think najeeb’s son in law played a role? he is from kazakhstan and thus fluent in russian.

  2. #2 by PRmaju on Thursday, 24 July 2014 - 12:05 pm

    the ‘kuai lo’ never heard of jibby’s ‘u help me, i help u’ powerful weapon

  3. #3 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 24 July 2014 - 2:04 pm

    So basically Najib made a call to local leader who never expected to be called by any real national leader from any place anytime soon.. Really, that is what called “working quietly in service of better outcome”?? The rebels had put the bodies in REFRIGERATED TRAINS – while they could have further put themselves in a corner with worst actions and delay, it was not likely. They were already going to hand over to someone. Najib just happened to be the most politically and logistically convenient for them and called at the perfect time for them. It worked out for the separatist just as well..

  4. #4 by yhsiew on Thursday, 24 July 2014 - 2:50 pm

    ///Malaysia has long sought to avoid conspicuously taking sides in the rivalries among the United States, Russia and China….///

    That is right. What these countries do among themselves is none of Malaysia’s business. Malaysia wants to befriend with other countries to promote trades, knowledge exchange, experience sharing and to open new venues for our young people to receive further education.

  5. #5 by Noble House on Thursday, 24 July 2014 - 4:05 pm

    Najib’s claims to have brokered the deal with the pro-Russian separatist leader by way of “quiet diplomacy” may be seen as palpable, a moral victory of sort, but not one to be called a success. It’s about doing what he thought was right.

    The real test of his leadership will come when there’s concrete evidence and his readiness to stand with the international community to speak out against the perpetrators to be punished and brought to justice. This is where the balancing act will come into play.

You must be logged in to post a comment.