The Tragedy of MH17: Attack Could Mark Turning Point in Ukraine Conflict
The shooting down of a jet carrying 298 people on Thursday could mark the turning point in the conflict between Russia, Ukraine and the West. With evidence suggesting pro-Russian separatists fired the missile, pressure is mounting on Vladimir Putin.
A travel guide titled "Bali and Lombok" could be seen lying in the middle of the field of smoking wreckage, a nightmarish landscape of ash, twisted metal and body parts. For the passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17, the prospect of a vacation in the tropics ended in death, near a poultry farm on the outskirts of the village of Grabovo in eastern Ukraine.
On Thursday, armed rebels combed through the wreckage of the aircraft, which had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile while traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The men in camouflage held up Dutch passports for the cameras, while one used his mobile phone to take pictures of the horrific scene.
After hearing a loud explosion on Thursday afternoon, residents of the neighboring village, Sjeverne, initially remained in their homes. They initially thought they were coming under fire from the Ukrainian army, says a local journalist who calls himself Sergei. "The explosion was so powerful that a friend even threw himself onto the ground."
Then the young men from the town got on their mopeds and drove to the accident site, three kilometers (2 miles) away. They saw a dead body on the side of the road, says Sergei. They walked gingerly across the scorched earth, wearing sandals and shorts. There were bodies with twisted limbs lying on the ground. The mouth of one dead woman was still open in a scream.
It was almost surreal, the way the human suffering of an aviation disaster had collided with the war in eastern Ukraine, on territory held by pro-Russian separatist on the eastern edge of Europe.
There were also four Germans among the casualties: Wilhelmina B., who was sitting in seat 36F; Fatima D., a 24-year-old student in seat 20D, who was going to Australia to visit her parents; Gabriele L., in 21E, who worked as a teacher at a German school in Sydney; and, in 41E, 24-year-old student Olga I., who was traveling with her Ukrainian boyfriend.
Holland in a State of Mourning
Some 189 of the passengers were from the Netherlands, where the entire country has been in a state of mourning since Thursday. A sympathy card attached to a bouquet of white lilies in front of Terminal 2 at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam reads: "Holland is in mourning. The world is in a state of shock. This should never have happened." There was a condolence book on a table next to the bouquet, in which someone had written: "This was a crime against humanity." Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had ordered flags to be flown at half-mast, said: "This beautiful summer day has ended in the blackest possible way." Rutte and the king and queen of the Netherlands were to meet with family members of the deceased on Monday.
Until last week, most in Western Europe perceived the civil war in Ukraine as a foreign and faraway conflict, dominated by bearded men in strange uniforms. The downing of flight MH 17 has suddenly brought the conflict much closer.
Indeed, the missile that shot down the airliner could have struck anyone traveling to a vacation destination in Asia. The route over eastern Ukraine is part of one of the busiest flight paths in the world, known to pilots as "L980." Anyone who has ever flown from Frankfurt, Amsterdam or London to Singapore, Hong Kong or Mumbai has most likely traveled along that route.
At the time of the incident, flights operated by Singapore Airlines and Air India were in the air space over the rebel-held territory, only a few kilometers away. Lufthansa flight LH 797, en route from Hong Kong to Frankfurt, was also scheduled to fly over the region a few hours later, but after the accident the pilots were instructed to program a new route into their flight computer. It is only since then that all commercial flights have made a wide berth around the region.
A Turning Point?
The downing of MH 17 could go down in history as a turning point in the Ukraine conflict. If it does, it wouldn't be the first time that a civil aviation disaster has had enormous political consequences.
Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov characterized the downing of the Malaysian airliner near the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk as being the equivalent of an Eastern European 9/11. While this may not be the best comparison, the July 17 disaster certainly does mark an important turning point -- for Russia and President Vladimir Putin, and for Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko, inaugurated only two months ago. It also represents a watershed moment for the West, and the Europeans in particular, because it could force them to begin taking a more decisive approach in the Ukraine conflict.
Russia's claims that this is a purely a regional conflict that does not concern the rest of the world can no longer be allowed to stand unchallenged.
The official investigations will continue for a long time, and it seems unlikely that all parties will recognize the conclusions reached by the experts. But it is already clear who the main suspects are in the downing of the airliner: the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine who had received substantial weaponry from Russia in recent weeks, and may have unintentionally struck a commercial airliner with a surface-to-air missile. They apparently believed it was a Ukrainian military aircraft.
Last Friday, US President Barack Obama, echoing the sentiments of his ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said that the rebels were likely to blame for this "global tragedy." According to reports in the US media, images recorded by US spy satellites support his contention. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was more cautious, although many diplomats in the German Foreign Ministry also consider this version of the events to be plausible.
Obama: 'We Don't Have Time for Propaganda'
Who should be held accountable for shooting down a Boeing jet filled with innocent people? If it turns out that the pro-Russian rebels he helped arm are to blame, Russian President Vladimir Putin will also face serious criticism, which will likely translate into further Western sanctions that could be very damaging to Russia. Is this why the separatists initially prevented independent observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from gaining access to the crash site?
"We don't have time for propaganda," Obama said. "We don't have time for games." Oleksandr Turchynov, the chairman of the Ukrainian parliament, even called upon the West to begin sending weapons to his country.
In Europe, many leaders have expressed outrage by the shooting down of the flight. In an editorial printed by the Sunday Times newspaper, British Prime Minister David Cameron called the attack a "direct result of Russia destabilizing a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias and training and arming them. ... We must turn this moment of outrage into a moment of action." He also called on other European leaders, to "respond robustly" with new sanctions. "For too long, there has been a reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine," Cameron wrote.
After telephone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande on Sunday, Cameron's office issued a statement saying that the leaders agreed that the immediate priority is to secure access to the crash site and ensure that specialist teams are able to recover the victims and return them home. They said "Putin has an important role to play by persuading the separatists to grant access and to work with the international community." They also agreed the EU must "reconsider its approach to Russia," and that EU foreign ministers would impose further sanctions if full access to the site wasn't provided to accident investigators.
"Moscow has perhaps its last chance to show that it is seriously interested in a solution," Steinmeier told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
In Germany, so far, an atmosphere of reserve has prevailed. Neither Chancellor Merkel nor Foreign Minister Steinmeier has publicly blamed Putin for the incident. Speaking on Friday, the chancellor stated, "These events have once again shown us that what is required is a political solution and above all that it is also Russia that is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine at the moment."
On Monday, a Dutch forensics team arrived in Torez, where a train with refrigerator cars is holding the remains of the victims retrieved so far. Meanwhile, international pressure is growing, with the UN expected to vote later in the day on a resolution demanding international access to the crash site and a cease-fire around the area.
Victims from all Walks of Life
The 298 people who died over Ukraine had nothing to do with the conflict that their deaths could now influence. They probably didn't even know that they were flying through the air 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) above it.
There were 298 tragedies.
There was British citizen Glenn Thomas, 49, a media officer with the World Health Organization. There were Roger Guard, a pathologist, and his wife Jill, both Australians. There were the Smallenburgs, a couple from Hilversum near Amsterdam, traveling with their two children. And there was Nick Norris, 68, a management consultant from Perth, Australia. He had boarded the flight in Amsterdam with his three grandchildren, Mo, Evie and Matis, aged eight to 12.
The passengers also included at least seven attendees of one of the most important global conferences on HIV, which is taking place in Melbourne, Australia, this week. Initially, it had been reported that as many as 100 attendees died in the crash, but conference organizers confirmed Monday that figure had been far lower than originally thought.
The victims included Joepe Lange, a professor of medicine at the University of Amsterdam, who had long been a pioneer in AIDS research and had specialized in HIV therapies.
Even worse, all of these stories will revive memories of another Malaysia Airlines flight, MH 370, which disappeared from the sky in March.
One Australian family now faces the incomprehensible fate of having lost some of its members on both flights. In March, Kaylene Mann lost her brother Rodney Burrows and his wife Mary on board MH 370. And now her stepdaughter and her husband were on their way back to Australia after a vacation in Europe. The two had wanted to take a different flight, but they were unable to change their tickets.
It took President Putin several hours to make a statement after the crash. Finally, he said: "Certainly the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy." He also pointed out that if Ukraine hadn't launched a military offensive against the separatists, the accident would never have happened. It's a claim he repeated on Monday. "We can say with confidence that if fighting in eastern Ukraine had not been renewed on June 28, this tragedy would not have happened," Putin said. "Nobody should or does have a right to use this tragedy for such mercenary objectives."
Meanwhile, as of Friday, Russian state media reported around the clock that the Ukrainian forces probably shot down the aircraft. The majority of Russians believe the repeated claims of experts who insist that the pro-Russian rebels didn't even have the kinds of weapons used in the incident. The height of the propaganda offensive was probably a report from the Russian news agency Interfax, which claimed that the attack was in fact aimed at Putin himself, who was returning from a trip to Latin America.
Did Rebels Get Russian Training?
Nevertheless, there are many indications that the separatists were likely responsible. The United States presented over the weekend what it called "powerful" evidence the rebels shot down the jet. On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN Russia had directed large quantities of heavy weapons to Ukrainian separatists and even trained them on the use of SA-11 (Buk) anti-aircraft missiles of the type believed to have been used in the attack on Flight MH 17. "We know for certain that the separatists have a proficiency that they've gained from training from Russians as to how to use these sophisticated SA-11 systems," Kerry said.
A commercial airliner traveling at 33,000 feet can only be shot down by a radar-guided anti-aircraft missile system, such as the Soviet-made Buk-M1. In late June, the rebels boasted that they had gained control over two of the systems from the Ukrainian army. In NATO terminology, the Buk system is referred to as a "gadfly." It can capture six targets at the same time, and it can shoot them down from a distance of up to 25 kilometers.
UN Ambassador Samantha Power told the UN Security Council that rebels had already shot down Ukrainian military transport planes in the past. Besides, she said, they had been spotted with a Buk system on Thursday. The interior minister in Kiev issued a video showing a missile system being transported to the Russian border. The video was supposedly recorded at 4:50 a.m. last Friday, or about 12 hours after the crash of MH 17.
- Part 1: Attack Could Mark Turning Point in Ukraine Conflict
- Part 2: 'We Warned Them Not To Fly through Our Airspace'
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2014
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles