Collateral damage is part of every war, but some tragedies poignantly symbolise its inherent inequity and call for investigation and the assignment of blame. The downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine is the latest example. Hundreds of innocent lives were snuffed out by trigger-happy warriors on ground simply because they too were impetuous to hold their fire. The victims had nothing to do with the conflict over which the trajectory of their plane was taking them.
The irony is that instead of defining the tragedy as a moment of shame and reflection, it is leading to a rush of allegations and counter-allegations, a flood of disinformation and a chorus of denials. This is not the first time this is happening. The sinking of the Lusitania off Ireland in 1915, the downing of an Iranian airliner in the Gulf by a US Naval ship in 1988 and the Amiiryah shelter bombing in Baghdad generated a similar miasma.
An unfettered investigation is undoubtedly necessary to arrive at the truth. The world, however, does not have to wait for the outcome of what may be a lengthy inquiry to pay urgent attention again to the crisis which led to this tragedy.
The downing of a passenger jet in Ukraine may prove to be a turning point in the Ukrainian conflict. But which way it turns depends mainly on who carried out the attack and how convincingly it can be proved to the world.
With suspicion falling heavily on pro-Russian insurgents, the event could provide an opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to disengage from his increasingly uncontrollable allies in eastern Ukraine. But if enough doubt persists, positions could harden in both Russia and the West. The West could toughen its sanctions against Russia and help Ukraine’s military, prompting Putin to dig in for an even higher-stakes battle.
Paradoxically, horrifying moments like this can also encourage government leaders to break from the status quo and its cycle of escalation—and think about ways to move back from the brink. It is likely that this tragedy will lead to a reduction in hostilities, at least for a while. Neither the Ukrainian nor the rebel side will want to be seen as rushing to resume the fighting. In Moscow, presumably, they will want to sit back and consider what they should do with Ukrainian rebels who are not easy to control.
However, it would be foolhardy to assume that to end the basic conflict will be easy. The US and EU want to preserve and extend their influence in Ukraine, and so does Russia, and there are many ways it can use its leverage, particularly its economic leverage, to do so. The middle way, a way which would allow Ukraine to look both east and west, has been crushed between these millstones.
Recent history offers two examples in which inadvertent attacks on civilian airliners demonstrated the risks of military confrontation, but also led, over time, to a process of sober reflection and eventual de-escalation. The shock of this outrage could provide an opportunity for new thinking. But the US and EU must realise that Russia has to be a part of the solution.