Skip to main content

Is MH17 disaster a result of tragic blunder?

By Michael Desch
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 sits in a field at the crash site in Hrabove, Ukraine, on Tuesday, September 9. The Boeing 777 is believed to have been shot down July 17 in an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels. Debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 sits in a field at the crash site in Hrabove, Ukraine, on Tuesday, September 9. The Boeing 777 is believed to have been shot down July 17 in an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels.
HIDE CAPTION
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Malaysia Airlines passenger plane possibly was shot down in Ukraine
  • Michael Desch: If true, Russia and its local allies could be blamed
  • Desch: If a Russian missile did bring down MH17, it likely was a tragic error

Editor's note: Michael Desch is a professor and chairman of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame. He specializes in international security and American foreign and defense policies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- In the last few days, two Ukrainian warplanes were brought down over Eastern Ukraine (one allegedly by a Russian jet) and on Thursday a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane crashed in the area, apparently with the loss of all 298 souls on board. If it turns out that the unfortunate civilian airliner was also shot down, Russia and its local allies could again be implicated. Understandably, the international community will wonder whether this portends an escalation in the Kremlin ambitions there.

Michael Densch
Michael Densch

Vice President Joe Biden is already sure he knows what happened, telling an audience in Detroit on Thursday that the plane has "been shot down, not an accident. Blown out of the sky." Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko calls this "an act of terrorism" and is pointing the rhetorical finger at Moscow.

While all the facts are not yet in, it is indeed possible that a Russian surface-to-air missile brought the civilian plane down. If so, Russia or its Ukrainian separatist allies bear heavy responsibility for this tragedy. But that would not indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin's overall strategy in the region has changed.

If a Russian missile did bring down MH17, it is likely that it was the result of a tragic error, a case of mistaken identity, rather than an intentional act by either the Russian military or their Ukrainian separatist allies. Such accidents are sadly not unprecedented.

MH17 shot down amid political chaos
Ukraine President: It is a terrorist act
Souls lost aboard MH17

In 1983, Soviet Air Defense Forces tracking an American electronic reconnaissance plane operating near their naval facilities on the Kamchatka Peninsula mistakenly shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 with the loss of 269 passengers, including a hard-line anticommunist U.S. congressman. And during the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf in 1988, a U.S. Navy AEGIS cruiser -- the USS Vincennes -- mistook Iran Air Flight 655 for an attacking Iranian warplane and shot it down, killing 290 civilians. Such tragic accidents happen in wartime or periods of heightened international tensions.

If it turns out that this is what happened in this case, the Russian military and their Ukrainian allies will suffer a well-deserved black eye. The Russian Air Defense Forces ought to have been able to distinguish a civilian airliner, operating on a previously filed flight plan and with its electronic identification systems operating, from Ukrainian warplanes. If they gave a high-altitude system to the Ukrainian separatists, then they also should have anticipated that an accident like this could have happened given that the Donetsk Republic has only primitive radar systems.

But there is blame to go around. Why did MH17's flight path take it right over a war zone in which two warplanes had just been shot down? You have to wonder what the airline and the Ukrainian and Russian civilian air controllers were thinking.

Even if events transpired as Biden and Poroshenko surmise, it's unlikely to indicate any major change in the Kremlin's ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. There is no evidence that Putin has deviated from his strategy of keeping the pot boiling in the region and begun moving toward something more ambitious.

Indeed, all the evidence suggests that he understands that the Donetsk Republic is not the Crimea. The best he can hope for is to use the pro-Russian insurgency as a lever to pry Kiev out of its increasingly Western orientation and as a bargaining chip with the new Ukrainian regime to get it to adopt a more federal political system that will keep Ukraine suspended between East and West.

This is, of course, a cold-blooded Machiavellian strategy of realpolitik. But such a cynical approach to the Eastern Ukraine is not incompatible with this event being nothing more than a tragic blunder.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT