Responding to Tragedy: Malaysia Airlines MH17
Former Ambassador to the European Union and High Commissioner to Britain
High above a conflict on the ground, which looked only to get worse, an airliner from a distant country on a routine flight is whacked out of the sky by—something.
In the uncertainty that has followed, the 24/7 news coverage have given play to rumours, reports of intelligence service read-outs and, above all, competing accusations.
The president of Ukraine, where the doomed Malaysian airliner landed, accuses the Russian separatists he is fighting of an "act of terror."
These rebels, in turn, deny they even have the capability of carrying out such a deed and blame Ukraine's own military for the downed aircraft.
Some are also arguing it had to be the Russians. I haven't seen them yet, but the usual conspiracy blogs will no doubt be blaming this on the United States’ CIA any minute now.
Of course someone is to blame, especially if we are to believe U.S. officials who say they have evidence the airliner was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
Who in the area had a surface-to-air missile capable of hitting a plane at 10,000 metres?
Both Russian and Ukrainian armed forces are equipped with the Soviet-era BUK system that could do the job. But why would they?
As to the pro-Russia separatists in East Ukraine, one tweeted that his group had captured a BUK system. But could they have pulled it off, probably inadvertently?
Who knows? When will we know? Let's opt for patience on that.
Bring in a referee
The magnitude of this tragedy means the conflict on the ground is no longer just about a quarrel in Ukraine.
Now, the international community needs to insist on an impartial examination.
All we really know at this point is that the downing of Malaysian Flight MH17 has created a critical moment in which this extended Russia-Ukraine crisis can go one of two ways.
Either this, surely unintended, disaster will bring people to their senses and will force the international community, including Russia, to get the fighters to stop and negotiate the issues that separate them.
Or, the competing blame-game will ratchet up the venom and let loose the dogs of a wider war.
The most important priority is for everyone now should be for both parties to back off.
This is a disaster. But whatever harm those who launched the missile intended, the purpose was almost certainly not to bring down a Malaysia Airlines 777 passing peacefully high overhead.
Also, we have seen variations of this movie before.
Back in 1983, a Korean jetliner strayed via a computer-input error a few hundred miles into Soviet airspace—only weeks after Soviet Air Defence had ignored a similar intrusion when an interceptor was scrambled but the pilot was unable to identify the aircraft in the moonless dark. This time, warnings went unheeded in the plane, which was on wayward autopilot and Soviet ground control ordered the interceptor's pilot to shoot it down, convinced it had to be an American spy plane.
In the days after the KAL downing, some U.S. officials claimed that Washington had evidence from radio intercepts that the Soviet forces knew that what they were confronting was a civilian airliner.
In fact—fair warning to those who believe everything "high government sources" say—the transcripts of the intercepts indicated the opposite.
When then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau learned (because Canada had access to these transcripts) that false accusations were being made out of ideological rivalry and geopolitics, he launched his international (and end of office) "peace initiative," which Stephen Harper recently derided as an exercise in "moral equivalency."
It was no such thing. It was an exercise in developing transparent international rules of the road for crisis management in conditions of high risk.
There are serious issues in Ukraine, but we've all had enough of the helter-skelter violence of recent weeks.
This latest escalation, however unintended, just reinforces that it is now way past time to get the parties to lay down the guns and come to the table without outside meddling of any kind.
This piece is also posted on CBC.ca.