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UPDATED: July 28, 2014 NO. 31 July 31, 2014
The Politicized Tragedy
The MH17 incident holds heavy implications for the future of the Ukrainian crisis
By Yu Lintao

TRAGIC AFTERMATH: Debris scattered across the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 near the city of Shakhtarsk in Ukraine's Donetsk region on July 17 (XINHUA/RIA)

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 and its 298 people on board became the newest victims of the Ukrainian civil conflict—a tragedy that comes as a shocking reminder of the cruelty of war. But as many suffer the pain of loss, the incident has already been overshadowed by political wrestling between the West and Russia.

The Ukrainian crisis has developed into a complex, multi-sided affair, making it even more difficult to uncover the truth as to who should be held accountable for the alleged shoot-down of the aircraft. However, some observers suggested the tragedy could lead to a favorable turn in the conflict.

The blame game

The black boxes of the crashed plane have been handed over to the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch for forensic analysis.

Despite the lack of definitive evidence as to who is responsible for the crash of the Malaysian passenger plane, many international media outlets and world leaders have already pointed fingers at the pro-Russia forces in eastern Ukraine and blamed Russia for the escalating violence. Russia countered soon afterward that the tragedy could have been avoided if Ukraine's eastern regions were at peace, adding that Ukrainian authorities should be held responsible for allowing a commercial jet to fly over a war zone. Russian President Vladimir Putin called on all sides to avoid making hasty conclusions and politicized statements until the investigation is over.

Hours after the plane crash, Ukraine's security chief accused two Russian intelligence officers of involvement in the crash. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott soon followed with the claim that the aircraft was brought down by a surface-to-air missile launched by the Russia-backed pro-independence insurgents in eastern Ukraine. U.S. President Barack Obama then blamed Russia for creating the instability in Ukraine that led to the shooting down of the plane.

Professor Hu Siyuan, a military expert at China's National Defense University, said the international media's immediate accusations against Russia were understandable, though not necessarily correct.

Hu said that, firstly, Russia backs the Ukrainian separatist forces and is likely the main provider of weapons to the faction; and secondly, Russian technology could theoretically have been used to carry out such a strike.

These details, however, do not automatically implicate Russia or the anti-government forces.

According to Hu, the Buk missile is most likely the weapon that led to the air crash, but both sides possess the deadly instrument.

After the accident, the Russian side also showed evidence that Ukraine government forces deployed Buk anti-aircraft systems 8 km south of Shakhtarsk, where the Malaysian passenger jet crashed. Meanwhile, Russia's air traffic control records have revealed that a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet was flying close to the passenger plane before the crash, further inspiring speculation amid differing views of Moscow and Washington over the height of the Su-25's flight path.

Russia also questioned why MH17 strayed 14 km north from its planned route after passing Ukraine's eastern city of Donetsk.

Russia's Interfax News Agency (INA) quoted Andrei Kartopolov, chief of the main operative department of the Russian General Staff, as saying that "The (MH17) crew was attempting to return to the planned aerial corridor, but the flight was terminated at that moment. What caused it to go outside the boundaries of the route...can only be answered after the deciphering of the flight recorders...and conversations with air traffic control services."

Chen Yurong, a researcher on Eastern European studies with China Institute of International Studies, said the air crash came as a result of the integral geopolitical conflicts between Russia, the United States, and Europe, creating an entanglement over the complicated Ukrainian crisis.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict, Chen said, it is unthinkable that Russia would intentionally create such a terrible tragedy. The Ukrainian separatists, meanwhile, lack a radar system for such an operation, suggesting the event was most likely an accident. Though the black boxes have been recovered, the truth may not be uncovered any time soon.

Chen added that if the plane is confirmed to have been shot down by a missile, the perpetrators should be brought to justice regardless of their motives for the attack that took so many lives.

"What the world should think about most deeply is how to settle the Ukrainian crisis and put an end to the political gamesmanship of the big powers," Chen added.

Turning point

The air crash has made the tepid Ukrainian crisis a focus of international attention once again, as the regional conflict escalates to a global situation.

Yang Jin, a research fellow with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes the incident would lead to either the deterioration or mitigation of the crises, depending on the result of the investigation.

"If it is proved that the Russian army or the pro-independence militia was the perpetrator of the tragedy, Russia will lose points morally in the eyes of the international community," Yang told Beijing Review. "The West would be likely to take more drastic measures to sanction Russia while enhancing their efforts to support the Ukrainian Government."

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