MH17: Two Steps Behind


Recently, a Dutch investigatory team announced its preliminary assessment of what befell Malaysian Airlines Flight 17: a strike by "high-energy objects from outside the aircraft." Of course, that was never in question, so why announce it? The simple answer is this: the investigation is not about finding facts; it’s a cover for Europe to stay two steps behind Russia, where it hopes it won't get stepped on.

MH17, a commercial flight on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 people on board, disappeared on the afternoon of July 17 in the skies over eastern Ukraine's restive Donetsk Oblast. It reappeared shortly thereafter, spread over nearly twelve square miles of wheat fields in and around the village of Grabovo. By the time the first western officials were trickling into the area to investigate the crash, armed pro-Russian rebels had taken up position around the site, preventing the officials from collecting evidence or bodies.

With the debris field inaccessible, countries quickly made differing claims about what caused the jet to crash. Ukraine and the United States blamed Moscow: Russia, they claimed, had supplied powerful anti-aircraft missile systems to the Ukrainian rebels, who in turn shot down MH17, having mistaken it for a Ukrainian military jet. The Kremlin categorically denies this accusation (although the stinging lessons of Crimea have thoroughly discredited Putin), and even alleged that Ukraine shot the airliner down in order to frame the rebels. Conspicuously, nobody claimed that the plane crashed due to mechanical failure.

The US has compelling evidence on its side, including boastful online posts from rebel commanders vaunting their downing of a Ukrainian military jet that afternoon, and audio clips of panicked consultations with Russian officers when it became clear that their target was civilian and not military. This is just the lower-tech evidence cited in a report that also draws on technologies like "launch plume analysis" and heat-sensing satellites. Further corroborating this theory are numerous eyewitness reports, from partisan Ukrainians but also from Associated Press journalists, who saw Russian/rebel-operated antiaircraft systems of the type used to down MH17 deployed in rebel territory at the time of the incident. The Kremlin has offered no evidence in support of its narrative.

Taking this into account, the tragic story of MH17 seems fairly self-evident, and yet the Dutch inquiry plods on in proper bureaucratic fashion. Why? Because Amsterdam sees this investigation as a way of assuaging the Dutch public’s outrage without having to stand up to Russia. It’s an approach that risks establishing a reality in which Putin can do as he pleases because there is no precedent of answer.

Don’t mistake this for a call to war; direct, armed conflict with Russia would be a gross overreaction, but we are well past the point where the crimes and evidence at hand demand a response that Moscow can’t ignore. Putin is a prideful realpolitik hardballer, a man who would readily take miles more of Europe’s sovereignty if given a diplomatic inch. A robust response on the part of the Netherlands and its allies would be a defense of their collective dignity and a needed declaration that their citizens will not be collateral in the Kremlin's pursuit of Novorossiya.

Two months after the crash, all the investigation has been able to conclude definitively is something that has been obvious since July 17: something hit the plane. Even more vexing, a final report is not expected until sometime next year, at which point it seems unlikely that any serious drive in the international community to respond will remain. As Europe dithers between false doubt and an almost crippling fear of conflict, as 298 innocents are laid to rest, it becomes clear that this investigation is more symbolic than anything else.

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