Best Defense

The appropriate response to Putin: No civilian flights to or from Moscow

By Joseph Schmitz Best Defense guest columnist The shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) is far more than just another tragic event or the consequence of big-power carelessness. Rather, this first use of high-altitude surface-to-air missiles against international civilian flights by non-state actors presents an unprecedented threat to international civilian aviation. Civilian aircraft have ...

via Dmitry Rozhkov/Wikimedia Commons
via Dmitry Rozhkov/Wikimedia Commons

By Joseph Schmitz

Best Defense guest columnist

The shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) is far more than just another tragic event or the consequence of big-power carelessness. Rather, this first use of high-altitude surface-to-air missiles against international civilian flights by non-state actors presents an unprecedented threat to international civilian aviation.

Civilian aircraft have been destroyed by military surface-to-air missiles before. During 1988, the USS Vincennes downed Iran Air 655, killing all 290 passengers, stoking existing animosity between the United States and Iran. However tragic, that act occurred during low-intensity conflict with Iran when trained U.S. military personnel believed they were engaging a hostile Iranian F-14 fighter. However, even the $130 million compensation paid to Iran eight years after the attack has not undone the harm caused by that U.S. military blunder. When professional militaries can make such mistakes, the key lesson is that nation-states should never share these deadly weapons with non-state actors.

Although the MH17 attack was probably accidental, the reckless Russian provision of advanced missiles to militia proxies — weapons that had heretofore been controlled only by national military personnel — augurs increasingly dangerous times ahead. Even the recent UN Security Council resolution that condemns the attack and calls for a complete investigation papers over addressing the underlying causes of this tragedy.

The stakes are high. The international civilian aviation network that binds nations together has been put at grave risk by poor judgment of a Russia focused on resurgent imperialism. Such risks must not be tolerated by the community of nations. Failure to impose consequences for shooting down MH17 sets a precedent that local rebellions — when supported by advanced military powers — can close local airspace by attacking or threatening attacks on civilian aircraft.

An appropriate first step would be for Europe, the United States, and all nations seeking safe international passage for civil aircraft to sanction Russia by grounding flights to Moscow and denying Russian flights landing rights. The general principle to be invoked would be that when a nation or its proxies threaten an international public good upon which the community of nations depends, that nation (and its proxies) should lose benefits which flow from that shared good. Because Russia wantonly put the international civilian aviation system at risk, it should be denied international civil aviation benefits until it accepts accountability and compensates the victims of its adventurist folly.

"No-fly" sanctions reflect the outrage of European, Australian, Asian, and U.S. publics at the destruction of MH17 and the deaths of its passengers. Sanctions are justified by widely reported evidence of Russian complicity in the MH17 disaster, including satellite imagery and communication intercepts (and social media) from multiple national sources. Russia and its separationist proxies continue to deny and distort this virtually conclusive evidence of their culpability for destroying MH17.

Limited "no-fly" sanctions should remain in force until international investigators have unfettered access to the Ukraine wreckage field, all crash evidence, and have begun analysis of data contained in the MH17 black boxes. As a final condition, all parties to this incident, including Russia, would have to agree to guarantee safe passage to all civilian air traffic in the region.

Stopping international flights to and from Moscow is a calculated response to unacceptable actions because it directly links the consequences of the MH17 attack with Russia’s provision of advanced weapon-systems — tanks and high-altitude missiles along with training for their rebel proxies in Ukraine. Further, it underlines the cross-border violence that Russia exports to Ukraine, the root cause of this tragedy.

Most importantly, "no-fly" sanctions offer strong deterrents to any nations so reckless as to provide these deadly weapons to non-state actors. They impose clear costs for those who would put future civilian airliners at risk. For Russia, in particular, sanctions would entail great loss of prestige and very real economic costs.

"No-fly" sanctions of Russia offer four other pragmatic advantages. They target and punish unacceptable acts by tying the consequences for such acts directly to the specific breaches of international norms. Thus, "no-fly" sanctions reinforce international norms and conventions that protect civilians during declared or undeclared wars and guarantee free passage for civil aviation.

Moreover, these sanctions punish "bad" behavior but can readily be eased by subsequent "good" behavior by Russia. "No-fly" sanctions would give the Putin government a way out and are less likely to ignite a tit-for-tat resumption of Cold War adversarial relations between Russia and the West.

Third, "no-fly" sanctions entail real costs to Russia for introducing advanced weapons into Russian-instigated border wars while symmetrical Russian sanction reprisals would also cost Russia. This cost dynamic could encourage Russia to reduce the scope and violence of its actions. A tailored "no-fly" MH17 shoot-down response may even alter the present Russian calculus toward violence as Russia seeks to redress what it views as the West’s overreach after the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

Finally, micro-targeted "no-fly" sanctions should satisfy outraged EU, Asian, and U.S. residents. Because "no-fly" sanctions address the tragic consequences of introducing advanced missiles in proxy wars, they would leverage popular outrage to counter opposition to Russian sanctions by European and U.S. vested economic interests. Thus, they will be more difficult for global elites with political and economic ties to Russia to oppose.

Sadly, the MH17 tragedy represents a harbinger of events to come. This diffusion of increasingly destructive technology among non-state actors presents "wicked problems" for complex, interconnected societies. Our interdependence and complexity renders us increasingly vulnerable to non-state actors with a grudge and access to modern weapons with vastly increased destructive capabilities.

The international community must find creative ways to address this new threat environment to the interdependent global order that we now take for granted. The surface-to-air missile technology that destroyed MH17 is now 40 years old. Indeed, I first learned about the Buk missile’s predecessor (the SA-6) as a young Air Force intelligence officer in 1973. Yet the shoot-down of MH17 represents the first use of such lethal technology by non-state actors who lack the authority, responsibility, and accountability of nation-states. This diffusion of weapons technologies threatens the established order of nations in ways that we must now recognize and address. 

Sanctions, however "smart," will not alone shield us from these new risks. However, they can reinforce international norms that protect civilians and the infrastructures upon which we depend — and thus reduce the virulence, severity, and consequences of these limited wars.

Joseph Schmitz, a retired USAF pilot and military intelligence officer, has a Ph.D. in communication theory and research. He has written about unconventional warfare in Algeria. He also developed and taught aviation safety courses for the FAA in 2005.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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