BUK SA-11 Gadfly

BUK SA-11 Gadfly Anti-aircraft missile system – Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Reynolds, 19 July 2014

While much still remains disturbingly unclear about the current situation in eastern Ukraine, some things seem perfectly clear. Clearly this situation is now out of control. Ukraine has lost control of its territory. Russia has lost control of the separatists, and the separatist rebels themselves are a rabble. Shooting down a civilian airliner in legal airspace ten kilometres above the earth shows no degree of fire control whatsoever and a reckless disregard for the consequences. These are not the acts of a sovereign state.

Moreover the potential for this event to be a tipping point towards a broader conflict is deeply worrying. Measured responses are called for, not hot heads and finger pointing. Australia’s response to date has been unwise. Certainly, with 28 Australians killed, Australia has a right to be outraged. Our grief is real. Nevertheless, the speed with which Australia has pointed the finger squarely in Moscow’s direction has not been helpful. Without concrete proof to present to the world’s media to back up such claims, such a course is unwise. We’ve been through this before in Iraq. Strong claims must be supported by concrete evidence. Moreover, Australia’s Foreign Minister is now being ignored by Russia’s foreign ministry, which is also unhelpful. However this is not necessarily Australia’s fault. When dialogue ceases, conflicts deepen. More than ever, current events call for measured, engaged diplomacy from all sides.

Equally unhelpful has been Moscow’s response. The speed with which Moscow pointed the finger in Kiev’s direction when news of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 first broke, spoke volumes. Blaming Kiev won’t wash. Concrete evidence exists showing Russian military units training Russian separatists in Ukraine in recent weeks in the operation of anti-aircraft batteries, such as that which is believed to have been used to down flight MH17. These separatists are known to have already shot down Ukraine aircraft in recent weeks. In addition, the complexity of these units and the degree of training involved to operate them – these are no shoulder mounted point and shoot MANPADS – implies a degree of state complicity. It is clearly not Ukraine training these rebels, which leaves Russia. Russia’s denials of complicity are simply not plausible.

Finally,  Moscow’s refusal to acknowledge Australia’s grief, amongst that of many countries – most notably, of course, the Netherlands – has been equally unhelpful. Such refusal to accept the very real grief of the Australians shows a lack of respect for a sovereign state, a factor which rarely goes missing in diplomacy.

More interesting in this mess is the voice which is most notably missing – the Dutch. With 189 deaths at last count, the Netherlands more than any other country has the right to express their outrage, yet the Dutch response had been most marked by its absence.  We await their response with interest.

Lastly let’s not forget that intelligence used to detect such missile launches is likely to have come from the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, on Australian soil. It is possible that Australia’s access to such United States garnered intelligence has emboldened Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to boldly state “It’s clear that all the evidence at this stage suggests that this aircraft was shot down from territories controlled by Russian-backed rebels”. If this is the case, it would be helpful to present such evidence to the world’s media at the earliest opportunity.

How states choose to respond to such tragic events as MH17 speaks volumes about our values as nations. The language we use to express our response and convey our message is vital. At the moment it seems all sides to this escalating situation are struggling to find the right language to both express their position and escape this Escher-type puzzle from escalating into unwanted conflict.

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