Plane truths

Print edition : August 22, 2014

A pro-Russian separatist stands on part of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane after it crashed in eastern Ukraine on July 17. Photo: MAXIM ZMEYEV/REUTERS

Members of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission being escorted by rebel fighters at the crash site on July 22. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia blames the U.S. for the state of affairs in Ukraine. Photo: ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP

U.S. President Barack Obama. Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

The U.S. blames the crash of the Malaysian aircraft in Ukraine on Russia, with the agenda of further tightening the sanctions against Moscow and expanding NATO up to Russia’s doorstep.

THE NEWS OF THE MALAYSIAN Airlines’ flight MH17 crashing in eastern Ukraine on July 17 momentarily diverted the world’s attention from the atrocities the Israeli army was perpetrating on hapless civilians in the Gaza Strip. The crash of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777, which killed all the 298 passengers and crew on board, was a shocking event. Among the dead were 193 Dutch nationals, 43 Malaysians and 28 Australians.

There were strong words of condemnation from United States President Barack Obama and other Western leaders. They wasted no time in linking the crash with the civil war currently raging in Ukraine, pitting eastern Ukraine against the Western-backed central government in Kiev. Obama lamented the loss of innocent lives of people “who had nothing to do with the conflict in Ukraine”. Their deaths, he said, “are an outrage of unspeakable proportions”.

Obama had no words of sympathy for the hundreds of children who were killed in their homes, schools and hospitals in Gaza. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, when asked about the killing of civilians in Gaza, refused to describe it as a “war crime” or a “massacre”; instead, he said that in a war “bad things are going to happen”. The U.S., as is well known, is complicit in the deaths in Gaza because it is the biggest military and financial backer of Israel. But Washington was in a tearing hurry to blame Moscow for the downing of the Malaysian airliner. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said that there was “credible evidence” linking Moscow with the crash.

Kerry had almost pushed his President to a war in Syria when he claimed that there was clear evidence linking the Syrian government with the poison gas attack on civilians. Evidence that emerged later showed the needle of suspicion pointing towards the Western-supported rebels in Syria.

Since the crisis in Ukraine erupted earlier in the year, U.S. satellites and intelligence agencies have been conducting “full spectrum” monitoring of the area where the aircraft crashed. So far, they have not been able to provide a single shred of credible evidence to prove their allegations despite the crash having taken place in the afternoon, in broad daylight. The authorities in Russia and Ukraine had closed the air corridor over the east for their commercial flights after earlier incidents in July involving the shooting down of Ukrainian military planes. Most of the European airliners had also stopped using that particular route at the time the Malaysian airliner was shot down. The International Civil Aviation Organisation had, however, not issued any advisory to the airlines operating in the sector.

Both the U.S. and Ukraine are among the handful of countries that have had the dubious distinction of shooting down passenger planes. The Ukrainian army shot down a Russian passenger plane heading for Tel Aviv in September 2001, killing all 71 people on board. The downing of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, during the last days of the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran, is one of the must duplicitous and cowardly acts in aviation history. The plane was shot down by a U.S. warship, USS Vincennes, which had sailed into Iranian waters. All 290 on board the plane were killed. Washington has never bothered to apologise, and the captain of the ship was, in fact, given a gallantry award. In 1983, a South Korean passenger plane was shot down over Siberia as it sharply veered away from its course. All 210 passengers on board were killed. It was later revealed that the South Korean pilot was on a clandestine spying mission for his country’s secret service. Those were the days when the “Cold War” was at its height. South Korea, under authoritarian rule at the time, was a key ally of the U.S.

Politics of “evidence”

It was the second civilian aircraft Malaysia lost within a span of months under tragic circumstances. But the government in Kuala Lumpur did not rush to a judgment, unlike some Western governments. The separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine and the Russian government continue to be painted as the villains responsible for bringing down a civilian plane. The government in Kiev did not waste any time in putting the blame on Moscow. Without providing any tangible evidence, it said that the plane was downed by separatists in the East with a Russian-supplied long-range surface-to-air “Buk” missile. The separatists, on their part, blamed the Ukrainian government for the shooting down of the plane, pointing out that the Ukrainian armed forces have a large arsenal of anti-aircraft missiles, including Buk missiles. The Russian authorities claimed that their radar showed a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter tailing the ill-fated passenger plane.

According to reports, the damaged MH17’s starboard engine shows telltale signs of a hit from an air-to-air missile and not a surface-to-air missile. No witnesses have come forward to say that they saw the thick smoke surface-to-air missiles leave behind after they are fired. Some Malaysian commentators, such as Chandra Muzaffar, are veering towards the view that the downing of the aircraft was a “false flag” operation conducted to discredit Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first leader to immediately call for an impartial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the crash of the jetliner. He has repeatedly emphasised the need for a resumption of peace talks between the two opposing sides in Ukraine. Russian officials pointed out that had there been negotiations, there would not have been any fighting in the country and the aviation tragedy would not have happened. “All sides to the conflict must halt fighting swiftly and begin peace negotiations,” Putin said in the third week of July. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that it was all the more important at this juncture for peace to prevail in the eastern Ukraine region, taking into account the ongoing investigation of the air crash, which covered a vast territory. But the agenda of the West is becoming amply clear.

Washington is known to turn humanitarian tragedies to its advantage, leading to disastrous consequences for the rest of the world. After the September 11 terrorist attacks on its home soil, the U.S. retaliated by invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was one of the staunchest opponents of Al Qaeda and other Islamist groupings. The false claim that Iraq possessed “WMDs”, or weapons of mass destruction, was the pretext to launch an invasion. Similarly, in the aftermath of the air crash in Ukraine, the U.S. wants to further tighten the sanctions against Russia and hasten Ukraine’s induction into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), even as the Ukrainian government is preparing for an all-out war with the separatists. The U.S. has now managed to get countries such as Germany and France on board in its bid to enforce even more stringent sanctions on Russia. The new set of U.S./European Union sanctions announced are aimed at damaging the Russian economy. Russia’s banking and energy sectors are being targeted.

There was no cessation of shelling of the towns controlled by the separatists and even the area surrounding the crash site by the Ukrainian forces. Investigators were unable to reach the site of the crash for more than 10 days owing to the military offensive launched by the Ukrainian government immediately after the air disaster. On the day of the crash, artillery shelling on the rebel-held city of Luhansk claimed the lives of 20 civilians. In the last two months, more than 250 people in the Luhansk region alone have been killed in shelling. The death toll is rising by the day. By the end of July, 800 civilians in the east along with 300 Ukrainian soldiers were killed.

The Western media and governments were all the time blaming the separatists for hampering the probe and allowing the bodies to rot. And when the bodies were taken after a couple days and stored in a refrigerated train compartment to be transported to Amsterdam, it was alleged that evidence was being tampered with.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had reached an agreement with the separatist leader, Alexander Borodai, for the deployment of “international police personnel” at the crash site where debris is scattered in an area of around 30 square kilometres. Rebel leaders had assured safe passage to the international investigators through the territory they controlled. Borodai said that the eagerness of the Ukrainian forces to take control of the crash site “irrefutably shows that Kiev is trying to destroy evidence”. The spokesman for the Ukrainian Defence Ministry, on the other hand, claimed that the Ukrainian forces were trying to reclaim the area in order to “liberate” the crash site to “secure” evidence.

The East is now faced with a huge refugee crisis. Many Ukrainians residing in the region have been forced to flee their homes. Many have become internal refugees while others have fled across the border to Russia. The Russian authorities have said that at least 2.7 million people from the East have sought refuge in their territory.

NATO expansion

The crisis in Ukraine has a lot to do with the onward expansion of NATO. The U.S. not only wants the military alliance, a relic of the Cold War era, to keep on expanding but also wants to disrupt the political and economic linkages Russia has built up assiduously with key member states of the E.U. Moscow had allowed the peaceful reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) after receiving commitments from Washington that it would end the Cold War and dissolve NATO. Between 1999 and 2009, twelve countries that previously belonged to the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact military alliance joined NATO. The encirclement of Russia will be stronger once Georgia and Ukraine formally join NATO. At the NATO summit of 2008, it was announced that the two countries would very soon be part of the military alliance. The decision to include Georgia in the alliance had led to a brief war between Russia and Georgia.

The former U.S. Ambassador to the USSR, Jack Matlock, who was present during the high-level talks between the U.S. and Soviet Presidents and during the negotiations between the late Eduard Shevardnadze, then the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, and James Baker, U.S. Secretary of State, has written that Washington had indeed given a commitment to Moscow that there would be no eastward expansion of NATO.

After the overthrow of the democratically elected President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, earlier in the year, President Putin had said that with the installation of a pro-Western government, Ukraine could at short notice be a part of NATO. “But tomorrow, Ukraine could become a NATO member, and the day after tomorrow, missile defence units of NATO could be deployed in this country,” Putin observed. He went on to add that Moscow’s decision on the Crimea was to a large extent prompted by fears about the onward expansion of NATO. “If we don’t do anything, Ukraine will be drawn into NATO and NATO ships will dock in Sevastopol.”

The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, speaking at a security forum in the U.S., said that American military planners had started looking at options that “we haven’t had to look at for 20 years”. He went on to say that Putin’s alleged role in escalating the crisis in Ukraine could “actually light a fire” which had the potential of engulfing the world. Dempsey equated Russia’s role in Ukraine to the invasion of Poland by the Soviet Union in 1939. The U.S. State Department has alleged that Moscow is supplying the rebels in eastern Ukraine with sophisticated weapons. As usual, no evidence has been provided by the White House. The Pentagon announced plans in the last week of July to provide intelligence on the locations of the weapons that were in the hands of the rebel forces. The Obama administration is already sharing intelligence about rebel troop movements. The threat of war is once again looming over Europe.