All entries for Friday 18 July 2014

July 18, 2014

MH17: Four preliminary judgements

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-28354856

I was interviewed this afternoon by Tim Boswell on BBC Coventry & Warwickshire's Drivetime. This isn't exactly what I said, which flowed in a conversation, but it roughly follows the notes I made beforehand.

  • Question 1. Who did it?

As yet there is no smoking gun. But there is quite a lot of circumstantial evidence. There are radio intercepts and also posts on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook. The radio intercepts show pro-Russian separatists stunned to find they have shot down a civilian jetliner, and then lashing back:

That means they were carrying spies. They shouldn’t be fucking flying. There is a war going on.

If you don’t trust the Ukrainian government sources, you might give more credence to the evidence provided by the separatists themselves on Vkontake, the Russian version of Facebook where they boasted about bringing down a military transport until they realized the full truth:

We warned them – don’t fly 'in our sky.'

  • Question 2. Crime or tragedy?

Clearly there are elements of both in this hideous event. There was intent to kill: you can’t set out to shoot down an airplane and not anticipate that deaths will follow. The event took place on Ukrainian soil, which is governed by Ukrainian law; in other words it was murder.

There was also incompetence: probably the aim was to kill a dozen Ukrainian servicemen, not 300 civilians from many countries. At best, the circumstantial evidence points to the involvement of people who are unscrupulous, reckless, and lacking in all respect for human life.

  • Question 3. What is Ukraine’s responsibility?

According to Russian President Putin,

The state over whose territory this happened is responsible for the terrible tragedy.

In other words, he argues, Ukraine is to blame for the downing of MH17 because its government is responsible for the actions of those opposing it by force. This amounts to a doctrine of collective responsibility that few will take seriously from a moral or legal standpoint.

Nonetheless Ukraine does have a responsibility, as do all Ukrainians on both sides of their country’s civil conflict. This is to facilitate and ensure objective investigation and prosecution of those found to be personally accountable, no matter who they turn out to be.

  • Question 4. A turning point?

For thousands of people, yes. Their lives have been changed forever.

In terms of global politics, no. The world has not changed, and the reason for this is that we have not learned anything new. We already knew that Eastern Ukraine is in the hands of reckless and unscrupulous people, willing to start a civil war and cause deaths for political ends.

There have been past parallels. In 1983 the Soviet air force deliberately shot down a Korean airliner over the Far East with many casualties. In 2001 the Ukrainian armed forces accidentally shot down a Russian airliner over the Black Sea. These were horrifying events, but it was no surprise that Soviet leaders would overreact disastrously to an airspace violation or that command and control was a weak point in the Ukrainian miliitary.

Russia’s relations with the West will now deteriorate further because of justifiable concerns about Russian support for the Ukrainian separatists and possible involvement in the supply of weapons and technical assistance. But relations were worsening already and the concerns were there already.

It is a terrible tragedy, as well as a crime. These are preliminary judgements, perhaps reached in haste. But it seems hard to escape them.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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