Since 1954, a total of six passenger aircraft, not including Flight MH17, have been shot down over or near war zones. On every occasion, there has been initial denial of responsibility, involving claim and counter-claim. In this latest atrocity, the horrifying circumstances make it all too easy for Russia, the Ukrainians and separatist gangs to deny responsibility and / or to spread blame in such a way as to make a criminal indictment impossible to prove. Russia has ample room to procrastinate, and plenty of time to feed the Russian public with conspiratorial theories, which in their current xenophobic mood they are only too willing to believe.
The very fact this tragedy occurred raises the question of how much control Putin has over the thugs on the ground in Ukraine, or how much he cares about Western reaction. Already the Moscow press is pouring scorn on the idea that Western sanctions can have any lasting impact on the Russian economy. They may well be right.
David Cameron, Michael Rifkin and the new Secretary for Defence, Michael Fallon, have argued that the Russian economy is Putin’s fatal weakness. The day after flight MH17 crashed the Russian Stock Exchange dived, but then again the same was true of the London Stock Exchange – investors were advised to buy gold, as is the standard market response to any such crisis. Both Stock Exchanges have now recovered.
A recent suggestion is that Russian oligarchs, some of them friends of Putin with property in London, would be targeted. It is doubtful that this would have any serious effects, however. The most it would achieve would be to stimulate the Russian propaganda machine and increase further anti-Western sentiment in their media.
The EU, led by Angela Merkel, has so far attempted “sweat reason” and has in the past claimed she can do business with Putin. She is now being urged along with other European powers to adopt a far tougher approach by way of extended sanctions. However, there have been signs that the German Chancellor has given up on Putin, and she will be reluctant to risk Germany’s economic recovery. France has never been enthusiastic to jeopardise its economy for the sake of international solidarity.
America, particularly the President and the Democratic Party, has been retreating into historic isolationism since their adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Would a Republican President revert to a more aggressive, Cold War response to Putin?
There is also the very real prospect that this incident will encourage other dissident groups, such as ISIS in Iraq, to strike at civilian airlines over the Middle East and Africa.
The incident also has commercial implications; share prices in Malaysian Airlines have fallen by 16% since the fatal crash and passenger numbers have disappeared. With one plane already missing, presumed crashed, since March, Malaysian Airlines has become the first major carrier in history to have lost two aircraft in one year, and the ramifications could be terminal for the company.
Finally, broadcast warnings not to fly over war zones should be strictly enforced by civil aviation authorities. It is not acceptable that passenger’s lives be put at risk to save money on aviation fuel.
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.