Argument

The Shoot-Down Heard ‘Round the World

The Shoot-Down Heard ‘Round the World

The tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, probably destroyed by a missile on July 17 while it overflew the restive region of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, evokes memories of the 1983 shoot-down of flight KAL-007.

On Sept. 1 of that year, a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 en route from New York to Seoul strayed off course into Soviet airspace. A Sukhoi Su-15 interceptor fighter jet downed it off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, killing all 269 passengers and crew aboard. As the world reacted with disbelief and indignation (except for the Chinese, who abstained in the U.N. vote to condemn the USSR), Moscow issued conflicting denials, claiming first that the Soviets had tried to "assist" the plane to a nearby airfield, and then that they had fired warning shots with tracer shells along the flight path.*

It was not until a week later that Moscow admitted the plane had been shot down — but blamed the pilots of the "spy plane" who, they said, knew they were flying over forbidden territory and did not heed the signals of the Soviet interceptors. Some of these claims were later exposed as lies: The world now knows, for instance, that the plane received no warning before the Soviets fired on it. But the Soviet belief that the plane was on a spy mission was probably genuine — "beyond any doubt," according to the December 1983 KGB/Defense Ministry report sent to the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, though it is possible that the KGB and the military deliberately misled the leadership to avoid taking responsibility.

The KAL-007 shoot-down dealt a heavy blow to the Soviet Union’s international image. "It was an act of barbarism," U.S. President Ronald Reagan declared, "born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations." His view was widely shared outside the Soviet bloc. Demonstrations erupted in South Korea and Japan: Protestors carried placards denouncing "massacre by cold-blooded Russians," and burned Soviet flags.

The Soviets’ clumsy and callous handling of the salvage operation further inflamed passions: They barred foreign search vessels from the crash area, and stripped the Japanese patrol boat Tsugaru of weapons before allowing it into the Soviet port of Nevelsk to pick up piles of shoes and random clothing items recovered from the search. In the meantime, wreckage and mangled body parts washed up on the beaches of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Shocked relatives, assembled on ferry boats in the Sea of Japan, called out the names of their lost loved ones — as they are doing today in Amsterdam, where MH17 originated, and in Kuala Lumpur, its intended destination.

The months between the shoot-down and Andropov’s death in February 1984 saw the worst tensions in Soviet relations with the West since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The ailing, incapable Soviet leadership, overcome with paranoia and a sense of doom, feared that Washington would launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the USSR. The deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe in the fall of 1983 meant that the Soviets were literally five minutes away from nuclear obliteration. Soviet intelligence was tasked to look out for signs of impending nuclear attack. Moscow’s fears were amplified after the November 1983 NATO exercise Able Archer, which imitated a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union and which Moscow briefly misinterpreted as a real attack. Only the cool nerves of the Soviet command center officers saved the world from a potentially apocalyptic catastrophe.

In retrospect, the KAL-007 downing was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. Coming after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and tightening Western sanctions in the wake of the December 1981 declaration of martial law in Poland, this senseless atrocity highlighted the moral bankruptcy of the Soviet system and deepened Moscow’s international isolation. It was largely to overcome this isolation, lessen the dangers of accidental war, and recover his country’s prestige on the global stage that Mikhail Gorbachev set out to change the underlying principles of Soviet foreign policy, leading to broad rapprochement with the United States, withdrawal from Europe, and the end of Soviet Communism itself.

The shoot-down of the Malaysia Airlines plane puts Vladimir Putin in a situation comparable to that of his role model, Andropov. Like in the early 1980s, Russia today faces international isolation and Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine. There is a widening gap between Moscow and the West in terms of understanding the other side’s perspective and likely actions. And in some ways, things might even be worse for Putin. In the early 1980s, the Soviet public was generally unaware of the deep crisis in East-West relations. Today, Russia’s public opinion has been inflamed by a torrent of vicious anti-Western propaganda amid rising nationalism, which severely constraints Putin’s ability to maneuver.

What really undermined the Soviet position in 1983 were the regime’s blatant lies and unwillingness to cooperate in an international investigation. Putin’s record in this respect is far from reassuring. Memorably, his presidency started with deception in the August 2000 sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine, which Moscow initially blamed on NATO while refusing foreign help in rescuing the crew. Putin then lashed out at a then-still-free Russian media for criticizing the government response and infuriated grieving families with his comment on the fate of the submarine: "It sank," he said with a callous smirk.

At a time when Russia’s relations with the West are at their lowest point since 1983, it is not surprising that Putin blamed the Ukrainian authorities for the disaster. The Russian media, in an attempt to shift the onus from Russia-sponsored separatists, has aired stories claiming that the Ukrainian air force downed the Malaysian airliner. While Ukraine’s responsibility cannot be discounted pending investigation, Putin is making a big mistake by pre-emptively pointing the finger at Kiev. By refusing to acknowledge the possibility that the pro-Russian militias may be responsible for the disaster, the Russian president risks losing moral ground by becoming an apologist and an accomplice to the crime.

If the investigation reveals that the separatists were responsible, only unequivocal denunciation of the perpetrators will save Putin from moral bankruptcy. Yet doing so will mean a drastic reversal for Russia’s support for the separatists, a prospect too painful for the Kremlin to contemplate. Accustomed to deception and disinformation, Putin evidently hopes to muddle through this latest setback. But this will only lead to a deeper crisis in Russia’s relations with the West. Memories have not faded yet of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and certainly not of the 1983 war scare. There were no catastrophes then — but this third time the world could be unlucky.

On the other hand, this tragedy — like the downing of KAL-007 — could serve as a turning point for Russia’s foreign policy, a point of departure on the road of reconciliation and rapprochement with the West. Just as for Gorbachev, the opportunity is there for Putin to take.

*Correction, July 19, 2014:  In 1983 the Soviets originally claimed that they fired warning shots with tracer shells before shooting down flight KAL-007. An earlier version of this article did not mention the tracer shells.