Intro: MH 17 incident has exacerbated diplomatic tensions between Russia, US and European countries.
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 280 passengers, including 80 children and 15 crew onboard went down while it was flying over Shakhtyorsk, Ukraine 50 kilometers from the Russo-Ukrainian border on July 17. The plane was reportedly flying at its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet following its regular flight path when it was shot down in the conflict zone. The flight crashed about 32 kilometers away from the Russian border.
The reasons for this tragic incidence and circumstances under which it happened are shrouded in mystery. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry blamed pro-Russia separatists for shooting the aircraft with a Russian supplied 9K37Buk surface-to-air missile system. While Pro-Russian rebels denied access to having advance air defence missiles, they’ve accused Kiev’s forces of shooting down the plane in a designated “anti-terrorist operation” zone that limited civilian flights to 23,000 feet.
Independent observers opine that rebels shot down the airliner mistaking it for a Ukrainian military aircraft that have been targeting the rebel strongholds in the same area in the past. Ukraine has put audio-video clippings of militant communication on the YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to support its allegations. Hours after the crash, the SBU, Ukraine's main security service, posted on YouTube a series of telephone calls between what it described as pro-Russian separatists and their Russian handlers, admitting to shooting down a civilian jet. As per Foreign Policy Magazine report dated July 21, the US claims to have incriminating evidence against the separatists such as images taken by US spy satellites showing a plume of smoke rising from the separatist-held area where the missile was fired. Reportedly, the Defense Support Program, a constellation of Air Force reconnaissance satellites that sense the infrared signature of ballistic missile launches and nuclear explosions, also detected the missile. Analysts watched video on social media that showed an SA-11 missile launcher being moved out of Ukraine and back into Russia aboard a transporter. The video indicated the system was missing at least one missile, suggesting it had conducted a launch, the Foreign Policy report said.
Timeline of MH17 Malaysia Airlines that was shot down on July 17 killing all 298 people
JULY 17: MH17, a Boeing 777 of Malaysia Airlines flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashes close to the village of Grabove, in east Ukraine. The plane disappeared from radar around 4:20pm local time.
The Russian government has denied playing any role in the shoot-down of the Boeing jet, seeking instead to blame the Ukrainian government for allowing a commercial plane to fly directly over a conflict zone where surface-to-air missiles have been used to bring down Ukrainian aircraft in the recent past. Russia has released military monitoring data, which shows Kiev military jets tracking the MH17 plane shortly before the crash – and posed yet another set of questions to Ukraine and the US over the circumstances of the tragedy.
Russian narrative observes as to why the airliner deviated from its flight path; why Ukraine had deployed AD system in the area of the incident and the presence of a Ukrainian SU 25 military fighter aircraft close to ill-fated airliner. They also questioned as to why US was not sharing the evidence it was claiming to possess?
The incident has exacerbated diplomatic tensions between Russia, US and European countries. More sanctions have been imposed on Russia.The UNSC unanimously adopted an Australia-proposed resolution July 21 calling for an independent investigation into the downing of Flight MH17, cessation of military activity around the site and unimpeded access for investigators. Russia on the other hand has joined the Security Council calling for an independent international investigation.
Pressure is building up that a UN agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), should lead the probe. What comes out of these investigation merits a close watch? What however is obvious is that the conflict in Ukraine is becoming characteristically non-linear with blurring of lines between state and non-state actors, friends and foes?
Fareed Zakaria in recent episode of GPS remarks that this is not really a story about a band of rebels who are up against the Ukrainian government. It is also a story about little Ukraine up against Russia, a country that spends 35 times on its armed forces than Ukraine. The Russian effort to turn this into an asymmetrical conflict by using Special Forces, rebels, and perhaps even mercenaries is a conscious strategy to take advantage of the power of asymmetry. Asymmetric warfare is thus becoming a tool of choice, both in the hands of state and non-state actors. It affords them invisibility and layers of deniability while pursuing their aims and strategy at a lower cost.
MH 17 incident also depicts the vulnerability of innocent population to this devious and vitriolic form of warfare. India needs to draw lessons from this incident and take measures to ensure safety of its own assets against such types of threats.
-Maj Gen BK Sharma (Retd) (The writer heads Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation at USI of India, New Delhi)