On July 17, a Malaysian Airlines Boeing-777 was downed over eastern Ukraine, a region controlled by separatists. All 298 people on board were killed. It is still unclear who launched the missile, but the international community has blamed the tragedy on Russia. Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya discusses the geopolitical consequences of the disaster.



Discussions about the crash of Boeing-777 MH17 revolve around two key questions: who shot down the plane, and who is responsible for the tragedy? Despite the fact that it’s been over a week since the crash, the international community has arrived at no credible answer to the first question. Only one thing can be said with near certainty: that the airliner was shot down by a missile. Nobody questions this. After that, though, profound disagreements arise. As of today, there are three basic theories about what happened—three different versions of the event.

Version one: the plane was shot down by separatists using an air defense missile system (ADMS) Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile that they seized from a captured Ukrainian military installation. This theory prevailed among Ukrainian officials in the early hours after the tragedy, but was later set aside by the attorney general of Ukraine, who declared that separatists could not have seized the Buk system from the Ukrainian military. There is speculation that Ukrainian authorities did not want to take responsibility for lethal weapons ending up in the hands of pro-Russian armed groups as a result of their negligence.

Nevertheless, this version of events reigns in Russian social media networks, among opposition journalists and bloggers. Supporting this theory is the fact that in late June, separatists announced the capture of the A‑1402 military unit from which they allegedly seized the ADMS Buk. Reports of this incident were published in official separatists’ online publications, as well as in pro-Kremlin media, but following the accident were promptly removed. In addition, almost simultaneously with the plane crash, separatists reported that they had downed an An-26 transport plane. These reports were accompanied by a video in which, it was later established, the downed Boeing-777 was shown. Yet this version of events fails to address two questions: was the Buk system seized by the separatists in working condition; and did the separatists have the skills necessary to operate such a complex piece of military equipment?

The second version reflects the view of Ukraine and so far has been cautiously endorsed by the United States. According to this version, on July 17 the Buk system was brought into the war zone from Russia, along with a Russian crew that launched the missile and left Ukraine the same night. This theory is corroborated by records of separatist radio communications from that night. Earlier records were also released in which separatists discuss the downing of an airliner that, according to the dialogue, had been shot down accidentally after it was taken for an An-26 transport plane. Moreover, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko says Ukraine has satellite images documenting the missile’s launch from the separatist-controlled territory. This was also mentioned by U.S. president Barack Obama; however, so far neither the images, nor any other supporting evidence, have been published.

The third version of events was officially announced by Russia on July 21. In this version, Ukrainian air traffic controllers deliberately directed the plane into a danger zone, where it was pursued by a Ukrainian Su-25. Although Russia’s Ministry of Defense has not stated outright that the fighter hit the passenger Boeing with an air-to-air missile, that’s the conclusion one can draw from their words. The Russian side also refutes the Ukrainian version, claiming that separatists did not have any Buk systems. Apart from the official version, the pro-Kremlin media spreads various conspiracy theories about what happened—from a botched Ukrainian attempt to shoot down President Putin’s plane, to an elaborate scenario involving a dummy flight, a plane carrying corpses, not live human beings.

There’s much speculation around each of these versions. Russia makes claims against the U.S. and Ukraine, accusing them of refusing to publish satellite images. Military experts and bloggers criticize an explanation by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, noting that the Su-25 is unable to make an accurate shot at an altitude of ten thousand meters, the height at which the Boeing was flying, and that separatists’ arguments about not having any Buk systems are inconclusive.

The policies pursued by Russia have driven its leadership into a corner. Russia has yet to develop a new approach, and the Kremlin is forced to play things by ear, acting spontaneously and often irrationally. All this leads to a full-scale crisis in relations between Russia and the West, one that’s becoming so deep it inspires comparisons to the Cold War.

While the parties argue about which version of events is most plausible, the second question arises: who is responsible for the tragedy? The West almost unanimously blames Russia, and it will be difficult for the Kremlin to convince it otherwise, because the issue of Russian military, technical, political, and informational support for Ukrainian separatists remains central to resolving the Ukrainian crisis. Another problem is that Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its military intervention in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and now the passenger airliner crash have all had a catastrophic impact on Russia’s international reputation. The Kremlin’s aggressive policy has created a political context such that, faced with a dispute between Kiev and Moscow about who is to blame, the world believes Kiev.

The crash of the airliner is an unexpected catastrophe that will have serious consequences for the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s role in it. First, the Ukrainian conflict has suddenly become global: the war in eastern Ukraine is no longer a local dispute between two countries. Over a dozen states (including the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, Australia, and Malaysia) whose citizens were killed in the crash have been unwillingly drawn into it. These countries now have the moral right to demand justice.

Second, the plane crash puts an end to Putin’s previous tactics vis-à-vis Ukraine. His goal was to start a separatist conflict managed from Moscow, a conflict that was to become Kiev’s persistent headache for decades to come. Perhaps now Putin will have to take serious steps to de-escalate the conflict, especially when the threat of European and U.S. sectoral sanctions becomes a reality. Even France, which has long taken an ambivalent stance toward Russia for fear of losing a billion-dollar contract for delivery of two French Mistral warships to Moscow, recently announced that it isn’t ruling out the possibility of reneging on the deal.

Third, the crash moves Russia increasingly farther away from its geopolitical goals. There was only one obvious goal behind Russia’s desire to stoke separatism in Ukraine, and that was to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, which would result in the western missile defense system moving closer to Russian borders. Now that Kiev looks like a victim of hidden military aggression, the Ukrainian leadership has ironclad arguments for direct Western military support. The option of Euro-Atlantic integration becomes pretty much the only option for Ukraine.

Finally, one of the results of the Kremlin’s current policy toward Ukraine is that relations between the two nations, which have always been considered closely linked in terms of their cultural and historical identities, have essentially became hostile. According to a recent Pew Global Research survey, in 2011, 80 percent of Ukrainians had a positive view of Russia; now this number is just 35 percent. Polls by the Russian Levada Center show a similar trend.

In light of what’s happening, it’s obvious that the cost of the war in Ukraine has grown exponentially. The policies pursued by Russia have driven its leadership into a corner. Russia has yet to develop a new approach, and the Kremlin is forced to play things by ear, acting spontaneously and often irrationally. All this leads to a full-scale crisis in relations between Russia and the West, one that’s becoming so deep it inspires comparisons to the Cold War. The irony of the key flaw in Putin’s reign is this: by concentrating all his efforts on keeping Ukraine within Moscow’s orbit, he lost it forever. And this means Putin now faces a major geopolitical defeat.