An MH17 Investigation Is Not a Substitute for Action

A lengthy, thorough inquiry into the Malaysia Airlines shoot-down is an absolute necessity -- and could be exactly what Putin wants.

Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

The world must have an accurate and authoritative understanding of what happened when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 fell from the skies over eastern Ukraine on July 17 — and, by extension, who is to blame. Likewise, the relatives of the 298 passengers and crew members who died in the crash deserve as much truth as can be dug up from the increasingly compromised crash site. Nonetheless, the ongoing investigation has the potential to become a dangerous distraction from the more important political issues at hand. That cannot be allowed to happen.

There is a serious risk that by focusing so sharply on the crash-site inquiry and on the bodies of the victims, the West will let Russian President Vladimir Putin off the hook for the tragic atrocity for which he must take responsibility. The Buk missile, which almost certainly blew MH17 out of the sky, either was provided directly by the Russians (as intercepted rebel communications suggest) or was stolen from the Ukrainians and brought to battle-readiness through Russian technical assistance. More to the point, although Moscow is trying to point the finger at Kiev for having the temerity to try to suppress a violent, foreign-backed rebellion on its own soil, the insurgency in eastern Ukraine has been fomented, encouraged, armed, and, in cases, directed by the Kremlin.

You don’t need to be a fan of the vintage British political sitcom Yes Minister to know that inquiries can as easily be used as tools of obfuscation and delay. As the suavely cynical Sir Humphrey Appleby puts it in one episode, "The job of a professionally conducted internal inquiry is to unearth a great mass of no evidence."

Moscow is happy to see the West focus on the bodies and the inquiry. This allows it to play a role in repatriating the former and to trumpet its cooperation with the latter. Of course, Russian cooperation will no doubt be partial and carefully metered. While Putin speaks of doing "everything to ensure the security of the work of international experts at the site of the tragedy," his local proxies, Ukraine’s rebels, were turning away OSCE monitors and spiriting away the black-box flight recorders.

In contrast to the clumsy efforts of the local militia, whose members managed to compound their disrespectfully unceremonious handling of the bodies with outright looting (observers noted wallets emptied of cash and credit cards, cameras removed from cases, and rings removed from bodies), sober-looking but unidentified men were seen by journalists carefully working their way over the site. While we do not have proof, it is hardly beyond the realm of possibility that these were Russians — GRU military intelligence officers and military air-traffic investigators — doing their best to sanitize what should be considered and treated as a crime scene.

Having already played its part in seeing the rebels hand over the black boxes to a Malaysian delegation, Moscow will likely try to claw back some lost credit with the West by interceding to ensure the bodies are repatriated. Likewise, an inquiry will be set up, presumably under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization, which Moscow is likely to want to influence and delay while appearing to cooperate. If the eventual findings are unwelcome, the Kremlin can always dismiss it as partisan propaganda.

Above all, though, the Russians understand that Western politics are characterized as much by attention-deficit disorder as anything else. Today’s burning topic becomes tomorrow’s old news, driven from the front pages by a new crisis or concern. In the short term, the Kremlin hopes that by appearing to compromise over the crash site, it can distract the West from the wider question of its semi-covert efforts to destabilize a sovereign neighbor. Furthermore, the proposed local cease-fire to help facilitate this will actually give the hard-pressed rebels a chance to consolidate their forces and regroup for continued fighting against Kiev’s government, giving the Kremlin a chance to prolong its proxy war.

But in the long term, Moscow must hope that an inquiry can give time for tempers to cool, voices for pragmatic (and often self-interested) cooperation to once again be heard, and new challenges to rise to dominate national agendas. The International Civil Aviation Organization’s report on the Soviet shoot-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983, for example, emerged three months afterward. There is likely an assumption in the Kremlin that three months is long enough for the world to have moved on.

On July 21, U.S. President Barack Obama said, "Our immediate focus is on recovering those who were lost, investigating exactly what happened, and putting forward the facts." This is understandable. But while pushing the need for a comprehensive investigation, the West must not squander this historic moment in which it is more united than at any time in years on the need to take a clear stand against Russian aggression abroad. And this must be a stand characterized by concrete action, such as tougher sanctions and diplomatic isolation, not just heightened rhetoric.

Russian attempts to appear cooperative with the investigation do not lessen the need to take a hard line.

Mark Galeotti is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and an honorary professor at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Twitter: @MarkGaleotti

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