Sunday, July 20, 2014

The loss of MH17, Russia and the West's response: a parable of the times

The events leading up to the downing of flight MH17 have the appearance of something from a Hollywood disaster movie. Collating the various bits of information that are known (or strongly suspected, based on circumstantial evidence), the story seems to have run like this:

In the war zone that is eastern Ukraine, rebels boasted in late that June they had succeeded in gaining an advanced anti-aircraft "Buk" missile system from a Ukrainian military base. More recently, the pro-Russian rebels had in the past week acquired some new heavy weaponry, including anti-aircraft hardware. It has been suggested that this was sneaked across the porous border with Russia while Putin was in Brazil watching the world cup final. It is reasonable to assume that either the rebels were trained to use it, or someone trained how to use it was there with them (given what happened with flight MH17, the former still seems more likely - more on why later).
That was last weekend. In the next three days following that, the rebels succeeded in downing Ukrainian military aircraft, with a much higher success rate than had previously been possible.

From what is known so far, Thursday's flight MH17 left Amsterdam and passed through Ukrainian airspace at a lower-than-normal altitude (but above 32,000 feet), as the higher "lanes" were busy. Ukrainian airspace is the most common transit route for Europe-South-east Asia air carriers, as it is the most fuel-efficient. That being said, some airlines had already decided to take a different route due to safety concerns. Malaysia Airlines decided to take the route anyway, as did some others. However, rather than taking the normal, more southerly, route, due to the risk of thunderstorms, the plane took a more unusual, northerly route, passing directly over the war-zone of eastern Ukraine.

Fresh from the success of downing a number of Ukrainian aircraft in a matter of a few days, the circumstantial evidence (as well as the posting on social media, later deleted) suggests that the rebels' "Buk" radar saw a plane on its scope. Eager at the prospect of another "kill", someone pressed a button, without thinking too carefully to properly check the signature of the plane first. They assumed it was a Ukrainian military transport plane. It wasn't. Given the fact that the "someone" seems to have confused a civilian airliner with a military transport plane (or in haste, didn't bother to check), it would be unlikely that a fully-trained individual (i.e. Russian "expert") would make that horrific mistake.

The story above is the one that the Western media agree most easily fits the bill, and given the circumstantial evidence, this is hard to refute.

Russia's defence

On the other hand, Russia's defence (though it is looking shakier by the day) is to bring up the question of motive. The question of "motive" neatly side-steps the actual circumstantial evidence (that the missile-launch was a horrible mistake). As Russia is keen to press: who gains from this? Certainly not Russia; only Ukraine.
The Kremlin's response to the disaster has been to blame Ukraine, while the West blames Russia. Meanwhile, it is faintly absurd to see leaders from both sides talk of the need for a full independent investigation, while they both squarely accuse the other.Russia talks of a conspiracy by Ukraine (with Western involvement?) to "frame" the separatists.
Put in this way, of course Ukraine would have a motive. But there is the problem of actual evidence to support it, which Russia does not have. Russian conspiracy stories have been something of a cultural tradition going back decades, if not centuries, so this is a story that is easy to "sell" to the Russian public. Riding on a wave of nationalist irridentism, Putin is enjoying high levels of popularity. It would be hard to blame him for wanting to do the same with the downing of MH17: it's a Western conspiracy; the West is encircling Russia; Russia is continually being undermined. This talk plays well in the Russian hinterland.

Putin's choice, and the West's nightmare

In some ways, while many the West emotionally blame Putin for the shooting-down of MH17, this tragedy is as much about the choices made by the West as by Putin.

Of course, it's much easier to see the link between Putin's choice to up the stakes in the war in eastern Ukraine. The consequence of giving advanced anti-aircraft systems to people who have been seen to be psychologically-unstable and morally-vacuous, is that events like what happened to MH17 are possible, even likely. Was it only a matter of time?

The West is now the spectator to how the Russia-backed separatists operate. As has been reported, the bodies of the dead were robbed of their valuables; even their credit cards were used. This behaviour was typical in the aftermath of medieval wars - opportunists quickly came to salvage valuables from the dead. Now the West knows first-hand that such behaviour happens in the 21st century as well. As this author has said before, human nature doesn't change: medieval (or feudal) thinking exists in the modern age; we simply have modern technology to mask over it.

In some ways, it almost feels like the actions of the separatists towards the many dead Westerners from the plane crash are deliberately mocking them, and the attitude of the West in general. The remains of them dead were left in the summer heat of the fields for nearly three days before being transferred to a number of train wagons. This feels like some kind of macabre public humiliation of the West's impotence: leaving the remains of rich Westerners to be looted and left to decay like the worthless, leftover corpses from a medieval battle-field; then, having them put into a train wagon, treated almost as though they were just carcasses of meat.

For the West, such behaviour may well be horribly reminiscent of the way victims were treated back in the Second World War, and a savage reminder of the cold-hearted neighbourhood that Europe now co-exists in with Russia and its proxies. This is the nightmare that the West has brought into creation through its own bankrupt morality.

As I said before, this is partially due to the choices of the West as much as Russia. By failing to with-hold to any worthwhile principles or consistency, the West has allowed itself to appear (or become) morally vacuous. In such a situation, this only encourages others to do the same.

There was a time when America and Europe idealistically used their combined moral authority to encourage the same in others; for good or ill, that "moral authority" came to be called "liberal interventionism". There was a time when it was seen as a force for good.

That time has long passed.

What remains is a morally-vacuous world where the various "players" simply do whatever they feel they can get away with. Perhaps it was always like this, and optimists were simply deluding themselves; but the realists are now the ones who are truly in charge.

People like Vladimir Putin are supreme at being ruthless opportunists, and it is people like him who are dictating events. No-one in the West is; no-one in the West has a clue what they are doing.

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