|A doll lies at the crash site on Saturday. (AP)
The shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, while a big challenge to finding a solution to the crisis in Ukraine, could also be a wake-up call that will lead to a ceasefire and negotiated settlement.
The downing of the aircraft has, naturally, sparked international outrage and condemnation. The West and Ukraine were quick to blame Russia, providing what appears to them as irrefutable proof that the separatists backed by Moscow were responsible for shooting down the plane with a missile.
The Russian were equally quick to deny the charges, adding that this was part of the “information warfare” against them and call for an impartial inquiry into the incident.
The differing versions of the events that led to the tragedy underscore the difficulties, which may eventually be insurmountable, in the path of finding a solution that will satisfy everyone.
The only facts on which all agree are that MH-17 crashed over a part of Ukraine which is a warzone between the Ukrainian government and the so-called “self defence forces”, allegedly supported by Russia, and that the plane was flying too high to be destroyed by the portable or light vehicle-mounted surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) so far openly used by the separatists.
However, from the clamour created by the charges, counter-charges and pure speculation about the incident some elements can be discerned.
The missile that brought down the aircraft was probably a “Buk”, what Nato calls “Gadfly”. A Buk system is vehicle-mounted and fires missiles that can reach much higher than the reported altitude — 33,000 feet — of MH-17. The Buk is a radar-guided missile, which could be fired without physical sighting of the target.
There are conflicting reports on whether the anti-government forces possess SAM batteries. Some separatists had recently claimed to have captured one from the Ukrainian Army, but other leaders have disputed this. What makes the allegation that the separatists fired the missile more credible is that a trained SAM battery military crew should have been able to distinguish the radar signature of a passenger plane from a military troop carrier.
The relatively inexperienced separatists, lacking extensive radar support, would lack the skills to make that distinction. Of course, the 2001 inexplicable downing of a Russian civilian plane by the Ukrainian military over the Black Sea makes such judgements difficult to make.
An important piece of evidence supporting the Kiev’s version are the recordings of alleged conversations between military leaders of the “self defence forces” released by the Ukrainian authorities. There is little doubt that the speakers recorded on the tape are aware that a plane was shot down, but appear shocked to discover that it is a civilian aircraft.
There are, however, claims on the Internet that question the authenticity of these recordings, claiming that the time stamp of the uploaded YouTube file suggests that the recording was made a day before the disaster.
There is also confusion about why the MH-17 was on this flight path, given that Russia had notified, well before the flight took off from Amsterdam, the closure of its airspace in the region. But it is possible that the path may have been open at the altitude that the Malaysian aircraft was flying. It is also not clear why the airspace was not closed earlier over eastern Ukraine where several aircraft, albeit military, have been shot down recently.
These questions should be addressed by an authoritative, impartial investigation into the crash to which all sides should provide evidence they possess.
The tragic incident makes it more difficult to get all the parties involved in the conflict together to seek a settlement. Any settlement will have to take into account the interests of all parties involved — Ukraine, Russia, the EU and the US. Also, Russia should understand that promoting separatists in Ukraine could lead to catastrophic consequences.
On the other hand, if the West insists on isolating the Kremlin, it will only exacerbate the situation and probably push Russia closer to China. Not an outcome India will relish.
India has in the past — and continues to — acknowledged that Russia has legitimate interests in Ukraine. However, at the same time, Delhi will have to make sure that this position is not seen as endorsement of Russian support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Moreover, if efforts to defuse tensions between the West and Russia fail, Delhi will have to seek to develop its relationship with Moscow as leverage against what is perceived to be India’s primary strategic challenge — the rise of China.
India and Russia will have to creatively use forums like the Russia-India-China trilateral, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and others to circumscribe Chinese power within a framework of internationally acceptable rules.
Nandan Unnikrishnan is a senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. His area of expertise is Russia and the former Soviet Republic