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Four Critical Lessons From MH17

Aug 05 , 2014
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

The tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 left behind four lessons that involve three aspects. The three aspects are the truth of the tragedy per se, domestic conditions in Ukraine, and Russia’s relations with the United States and the European Union. All four lessons derived from the three aspects. 

Lesson One: Don’t rush to conclusions before ascertaining the entire truth.

Yu Sui

Probes are still underway to find out the truth of the MH17 tragedy. Facts show that arbitrary judgments based on preconceptions don’t hold water. American politicians first asserted that anti-government forces in east Ukraine launched a missile attack on the flight with Russia’s support. Then they claimed anti-government forces in east Ukraine shot down the plane by mistake, “there is no visible sign of Russian involvement”. Now they have concluded assuredly that it was shot down, with Russia’s support, by anti-government forces in east Ukraine. However, different accounts have emerged from several other channels. Famous American political commentator and investigative reporter Robert Parry published an article at the independent news website, claiming that judging from photos taken by an American satellite, it was the government forces of Ukraine that shot down MH17. According to sources with Ukrainian authorities, on the day the tragedy occurred, air defense troops of Ukraine’s armed forces were conducting a drill specializing on unlocking missile launching systems, and that unexpected conditions during the drill might be the cause of the tragic end of the Boeing jetliner. 

Recently, some westerners and media have been emphasizing that anti-government forces in east Ukraine tampered with black box data. While Dutch security authorities announced that the recorded content of dialogue in the cockpit stored in the black box was intact, and that there is no evidence of human attempt to alter the data. 

The above claims sound strikingly divergent. And the culprits themselves may not stand out and confess. It is thus up to the facts to speak out the truth, and up to science and technology to make that happen. 

This reminds us of the famous quotes from late Chairman Mao Zedong: “No investigation, no say.” “All conclusions emerge at the end of investigations of the actual conditions, instead of the beginning.” 

Lesson Two: Respect the truth of the matter; avoid intentional politicization of the incident.

It is undoubtedly a dangerous inclination to politicize the MH17 tragedy. Which will not only interrupt the investigations, but may also result in more new hazards. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on July 18: “The tragedy would not have occurred had the Ukrainian authorities not restarted military actions in the country’s eastern regions.” Though such words sounded like shifting responsibilities onto the Ukrainian authorities’ shoulders, they are not entirely groundless. In the wake of the MH17 tragedy, the situation in Ukraine has worsened, and major-power relations in the background have deteriorated even more seriously. Who is willing to see such a scenario continue to escalate? 

Since the inception of the Ukraine crisis, the US has gone to great lengths to impose various sanctions on Russia. Sanctions have been considerably upgraded after the MH17 tragedy. The promise of “restarting” US-Russia ties has thus become smoke and mirrors. In fact, sanctions are a double-edged sword. The fight surrounding sanctions hurts not only the two parties involved; it will cause turmoil in both regional and global contexts. 

Lesson Three: Show more concern for the people of Ukraine, instead of making Ukraine a bargaining chip in and a victim of big power politics.

Ukraine’s economy has been in jeopardy for a long time, with “dual deficits” persisting for years. It has seen near-zero growth in the past two years. The Ukrainian finance minister told the country’s parliament not long ago that since the protracted military actions in eastern regions had “exhausted” state coffers, they may have to stop paying the country’s troops from August 1. 

Changes in the situation in Ukraine are closely related to the stances of Russia, the US and EU. The Russian bottom line is based on two points. One, Ukraine should embrace federalism. Two, Ukraine should not join the NATO. Russia has tried hard to resist the economic relationship based on the association agreement between Ukraine and the EU, but it can still accommodate it; yet it is resolutely against the military ties that will derive from Ukraine’s joining the NATO, and will not tolerate them. Out of self-interest considerations, some major EU countries have adopted policies more-or-less different from those of the US’ in dealing with Russia. Besides, non-governmental forces in east Ukraine, rebel forces and terrorists are entirely different concepts. Acknowledging them as non-governmental forces means there is a basis for negotiations. Taking them as rebel armies or terrorists means there is no way to co-exist. That the two parties have failed to sit down at negotiating table is exactly because a basic premise is absent. 

The very first step toward easing the Ukraine situation rests on how the MH17 tragedy will be handled. Whether Ukraine can enjoy political stability and economic progress, however, will depend on the domestic and foreign policies of the newly-elected president, as well as on the adjustments in the relations between Russia and the US and EU. 

Lesson Four: Proceed from the big picture, and avoid worsening major-power relations and escalating regional tensions.

What is big picture? Preserving peace and promoting development is big picture. Anti-terrorism and preventing nuclear proliferation is big picture. All such missions entail US-Russia cooperation. 

There have been persistent divergences and widening divides between Russia and Ukraine and between Russia and the US over the MH17 incident. Each party has taken a step back after the UN Security Council passed the July 21 resolution. The implementation of that resolution will determine the orientations of the two pairs of ties. 

Finding out the entire truth of the MH17 tragedy will not be accomplished overnight. It calls for patience, and sincerity. Upholding justice is the fundamental approach to resolving the Ukraine crisis as soon as possible, and preserving regional peace and stability. 

Yu Sui is a professor at the China Center for Contemporary World Studies.  

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