Tragedy struck Malaysia Airlines for the second time in four months when a passenger plane flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot out of the sky last week.
Interfax, a non-governmental Russian news agency, first reported the downed Boeing 777 on Thursday morning. The plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile and crashed in Eastern Ukraine, close to the Russian border. There were 298 passengers from 11 countries on board. All were killed.
Though it was originally unclear who was responsible, Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” the attack occurred at the hands of pro-Russian separatists. Kerry went on to say it was “pretty clear” Russia played a role in the events and provided the separatists with the missile.
In an interview with The Daily Signal, Daniel Kochis, a national security and foreign policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, answers questions about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, delves into the implications of last week’s events and explains how it could have implications for U.S.-Russia relations.
Q: With Russia and Ukraine being so far removed geographically from the United States, why should Americans care about last week’s events? Why not let the two countries solve this conflict themselves?
A: For a host of reasons, Americans should care about what happened last week in Ukraine. For starters, 298 people, including at least one American, died when Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down. The cost in human lives alone should be enough for Americans to care about last week’s tragedy.
Secondly, the United States has a significant interest in ensuring the global commons (including airspace) remains safe and open. One-third of Americans hold passports and 61 million Americans traveled abroad in 2013. The United States has a vested interest in ensuring its citizens are safe when traveling abroad to say nothing of the economic interest the U.S. has in ensuring commerce and trade occurs uninterrupted.
Finally, the United States has treaty allies in Eastern Europe that are extremely worried about Russian aggression. They, along with Russia, are watching closely how the U.S. reacts.
Q: Why is the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 important on a global scale?
A: Aside for the affront to the global commons, the victims of Flight 17 were from multiple nations. Furthermore, Russia’s actions in Ukraine threaten American allies in Eastern Europe.
Q: Who are the major players involved in the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 attacks?
A: It has become evident that Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine brought down Flight 17 with a SA-11 antiaircraft missile. The pro-Russia separatists have been fighting a war of aggression against the Ukrainian government in Kiev for months with political, economic and military support of Moscow.
Q: Who, exactly, are the separatists—are they Ukrainians or Russians?
A: The separatists are both Ukrainian and Russian citizens. Many of the leaders of the separatists are Russian and Russia has allowed the separatists to open a recruiting office in Moscow. They want the eastern regions of Ukraine to break away from the rest of the nation to form a new nation closely aligned with Russia, if not outright incorporated into it.
Q: Why is the plane crash significant in terms of Russia and the United States’ relationship? Why target a passenger plane?
A: The U.S. response to Russia’s illegal invasion, occupation and subsequent annexation of the Crimea—and continuing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine—has been weak and done little to deter Vladimir Putin from pursuing his aims aggressively in Ukraine. Russia created the instability in Ukraine where separatists could gain control of territory. Secretary of State Kerry confirmed over the weekend that the missile system used to hit the plane had been supplied by Russia.
The Obama administration bet the house on the failed Russian reset, which viewed Russia as a responsible actor and a willing and honest partner. Russia’s actions in Ukraine shattered that illusion. What is clear is that the Russian reset is dead and the U.S. needs a new, clear-eyed strategy for dealing with Russia. Unfortunately, the Russian reset and the administration’s policies have put the U.S. in a much weaker position vis-à-vis Russia.
Q: How does last week’s event impact the United States’ foreign policy?
A: In every region of the globe the United States is in a weaker strategic position than before President Obama took office. Friends and foes alike cannot count on the White House backing up rhetoric with concrete actions. A haphazard foreign policy built upon false narratives such as “the Russian reset” have left the United States weaker, allies gravely concerned, foes emboldened and neutrals wondering whether to bet on America. Last week’s events are a further example that the world is more dangerous and volatile in large part due to the policies pursued by the president.
Q: What action should the United States take? Are sanctions against Russia enough?
A: The U.S. needs to send a strong message that Russia’s actions against its neighbor are unacceptable and will be met with stiff consequences. The U.S. has a host of actions it should take, including but not limited to lifting restrictions on U.S. energy exports to Europe, withdrawing from the New START Treaty, increasing military cooperation with NATO allies in Europe, upholding missile defense commitments on the continent, and expanding the list of Russian officials sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act.
Q: Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday it was “pretty clear” Russia was involved. Does that seem feasible? Is it possible for the separatists to have fired the surface-to-air missile without Russia’s assistance?
A: Aside for creating the instability in Ukraine and funneling support to separatists, the U.S. confirms that the antiaircraft missiles were supplied to the pro-Russian separatists, who also received some level of training on how to use the system from Russia. We have not seen any evidence to suggest that they obtained or learned to fire the missiles without Russian assistance.
Q: What role does the United Nations play?
A: Yesterday, the United Nations approved a resolution that condemns the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. The resolution calls for a ceasefire around the crash site, demands that the crash site not be tampered with, that an international team of independent investigators be given access to the site, and that the human remains of the victims be treated respectfully.
Russia has a veto at the UN Security Council, so the resolution is a watered-down version. On the ground, the resolution will have little practical impact.
Q: The black boxes from the plane have been recovered. What is significant about this, and what can investigators learn from listening to the recordings captured?
A: The black boxes will contain flight data from before and after the impact of the missile. It will help answer whether or not the pilots saw or had any warning of the missile by listening to the recordings of the cockpit voice recorder. The black boxes will help piece together the sequence of events regarding the tragedy of Flight 17.
Q: The Russian media appears to be attempting to downplay the country’s role in the attacks. What does this portrayal mean, and why is it significant on both the Russian and international stage?
A: Russia will continue to deny that it was in any way involved in the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight and even that separatists in eastern Ukraine are involved. The Russian Ministry of Defence has questioned U.S. assertions that the missile was fired by pro-Russian separatists and instead asserting that Ukraine likely brought down the airliner. Russian officials and media outlets will continue to put out disinformation and propaganda, a tactic that Vladimir Putin and his regime have become very adept at and have utilized deftly in Ukraine since the invasion of Crimea began. The United States and our allies need to strongly refute Russia’s propaganda surrounding what is happening in Ukraine in general and with the airliner in particular.