Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Geopolitical fallout

The shooting down of a Malaysian jet over Ukraine that killed 298 people on board will have serious geo-political fallouts which will be visible in the coming days. The Ukraine crisis could either de-escalate swiftly or escalate swiftly; much largely depends on how Russia reacts.

Firstly, the shooting down of the passenger aircraft has internationalized the conflict which so far had only four actors – the Ukrainian and Russian governments, the pro-Russia rebels/insurgents and Russian military personnel helping the rebels covertly. Assuming that the pro-Russia rebels brought down the airline, it gives a fillip to US and Ukrainian government s’ claims that the rebels posed serious threat to national and even international security.

Secondly, Russia will have to lot of explaining to do. Russia and its president Vladimir Putin will have to explain how separatists got a hold of the missile system. The Buk missile system, which was used to bring down the Malaysian plane, can’t be carried by man and were certainly not some bit of gear stolen by separatists. The missile system with several vehicles requires training and knowledge to be used effectively which again points to involvement of Russian covert help for the rebels.

Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state, said action was needed to “put Putin on notice that he has gone too far and we are not going to stand idly by”. In an interview with American PBS network, she said, “The questions I’d be asking is, number one, who could have shot it down? Who had the equipment? It’s obviously an anti-aircraft missile. Who could have had the expertise to do that? Because commercial airlines are big targets, but by the time they got over that part of Ukraine they should have been high, so it takes some planning”.

Thirdly, Putin, already under pressure for the role his country is playing in festering the civil war, will come under increasing international pressure. Russia will have to reign in the separatists and cease all support including heavy weapons to the rebels. But gathering from Putin’s past actions, it seems unlikely that the Russian president will baulk under pressure.

US-Russian relations are already at their lowest point since the end of Cold War. The Malaysian plane was allegedly shot down hours after President Barack Obama slapped fresh sanctions on Russia. While Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry stopped short of directly blaming pro-Russia rebels for the incident, experts opine it could lead US to tighten the screw on Russia.

Fourthly, increased Western involvement seems a reality. Though direct involvement of NATO forces in Ukraine looks remote at this point; however, involvement of the west in the form of “escorts” of fighter aircraft over Ukrainian soil could be a possibility. The western powers-led by US now has a perfect excuse to interfere in the conflict. There will be a spike in the number of Western ex-special-ops soldiers fighting in Ukrainian territorial defence.

Fifthly, the relations between Ukrainian government and the Russian Federation have reached the point of no return. Ukraine, which had signed a treaty with Russia under the deposed Viktor Yanukovych which sparked widespread protests ultimately culminating in the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, will now be firmly married to the European cause.

Sixthly, the shooting down of the MH17 will bring in more countries, especially from Europe like Germany that has stayed away from the conflict. After the bringing down of the airplane by rebels, the Ukraine conflict now includes the Netherlands and Australia, which had their nationals on board, and even Malaysia.

According to Hillary Clinton, the future geopolitical trajectory would largely depend on Europe’s response. “Europeans have to be the ones to take the lead on this. It was a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over European territory. There should be outrage in European capitals.”