Flight MH17 Crash ‘Confirms Negative Attitudes’ on Putin, Russia

Expert Robert Orttung discusses implications of downed Malaysia Airlines plane.

July 23, 2014
The international community is still seeking answers after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crashed in Ukraine’s rebel-held territory last Thursday, killing nearly 300 passengers and crew members. Russian-backed separatists in the region have refused to give investigators access to the site, mounting suspicions that Russia itself may have played a role in the air disaster.
While evidence is still emerging, Associate Research Professor of International Affairs and Assistant Director of the George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies Robert Orttung spoke to George Washington Today about what we do know so far, how the crash is affecting perceptions of Russia and Ukraine worldwide and what consequences Russia might face if it was involved. 
Q: While pro-Russian rebels have been accused of shooting down Flight MH17, Russia has blamed Ukrainian forces. Is there any evidence so far that implicates either country? 
A: The most logical explanation is that the Russian-backed rebels shot down the plane assuming it was a Ukrainian military aircraft with weapons supplied by Russia. The public evidence is circumstantial. Immediately after the plane came down, the rebels boasted about it on social media, and the Russian Life News outlet, known for its close ties to Russia's security services, also reported that they had brought down a Ukrainian military aircraft. Now both the rebels and Life News have erased those postings. 
Implicating the rebels for shooting down the plane fits with a pattern of behavior we have seen. Previously, the separatists have shot down numerous airplanes in Ukrainian territory. Russia is occupying Crimea and has been supplying the rebels. Without Russian support, it would be difficult for the rebels to continue fighting. 
There is no public evidence for Russia's Defense Ministry’s claim that Ukraine brought down the plane. For most people in the West, the Russian authorities are no longer credible. Not only does Russia have a track record of spreading the most venomous propaganda, it has a strong interest in raising doubts about the growing evidence that the rebels were responsible for the tragedy. 
Q: Although Russian-backed separatists have blocked access to the site, they agreed to release black boxes and bodies of victims. Is this enough evidence to piece together what happened?
A: Obviously, that is progress after several days when the rebels refused to permit the international community to take the most basic steps, such as collecting the bodies and flight data. Perhaps clues about the missile that destroyed the plane were removed. The rebels’ behavior raises strong doubts about their culpability in bringing down the plane.
Q: President Obama urged Russian leaders on Monday to provide access to the crash site. If Russia does not comply, what sanctions might the country face?
A: So far, the U.S. has been slow escalating sanctions against Russia—the latest round targets Russia's armaments producers, energy companies and banks. Over time the sanctions are creating a great deal of uncertainty around the future growth of the Russian economy and causing investors to either withdraw their money or postpone investments. If the U.S. decides that Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism, it could impose further sanctions on the Russian economy and try to cut off its income, especially from energy sales abroad. Such a move would cause serious problems in Europe, which depends heavily on Russian energy. On Tuesday, the EU imposed more sanctions against Russian officials, but did not go as far as the U.S.
The U.S. should continue to use its influence to try to contain Russia's aggressive behavior, but a better strategy would be to ramp up our investments in alternative sources of energy. Doing that would improve U.S. competitiveness globally and undermine dictators that depend heavily on hydrocarbon income. 
Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing more to hurt Russia himself than Western sanctions. The Russian government has blocked most opposition candidates from running in the September Moscow city council elections and officially branded some of the key human rights groups in the country "foreign agents." Such cynical moves prevent Russian society from progressing.
Q: How does the crash affect President Putin's leadership and Russia's relations with the world? If they were involved, what will the consequences be from the international community? 
A: Russia and President Putin are extremely unpopular in the West, and the crash only confirms these negative attitudes. Countries like China will use Russia's weakening position in the West to take advantage of it, for example, by scoring cheap energy. 
At home, President Putin's position is extremely brittle. On one hand, there are no obvious challengers to his power. On the other, he lives in constant fear that if he lifts the current restrictions on society, there would be large street protests seeking to overthrow him. 
Q: How does the crash—and the subsequent media attention—impact the Ukrainian government and its conflict with Russia?
A: The attention from the destruction of the plane will likely boost Ukraine's standing in the world and increase international sympathy for its fight against the rebels. The level of fighting is increasing now as the Ukrainian army closes in on the rebel leaders. Unfortunately, President Putin does not want to lose this fight, and he is continuing to take measures to support the rebels and undermine the government in Kyiv. Since the fighting is taking place in urban areas, most likely there will be many more causalities, both among fighters and civilians, in the days ahead as the Ukrainian government tries to impose its authority on its sovereign territory.