On the 17th July 2014, a regularly scheduled Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed with the loss of all 283 Passengers and 15 crew. The scale of the losses immediately gave way to a vicious war of words and incriminatory statements from the various parties to the Ukraine conflict, each desperate to secure “their narrative” of what happened to MH17, as the officially accepted (i.e. globally recognised) statement.
But as the old saying goes “the truth wins out” and on the 13th of October the long awaited report from the Dutch Safety Board confirmed what had long been suspected, but vehemently contested. The crash was confirmed as being the direct consequence of a Ground-to-air missile strike from a Russian made BUK missile system, launched from an area that was known to be under “Rebel Control” in East Ukraine at the time. In fact the only reason Russia was not explicitly given a greater or more direct share of the blame in the report is because the Russian contributors to the report explicitly vetoed it.
At this point in an ideal world, the matter would have been settled. Russia would be forced to admit that rebel groups had shot down the plane (whether by accident or intent) and to issue an apology to the families of the deceased. Perhaps compensation may have occurred, but more fundamentally both sides would have recognised the event (most likely) as a tragedy incurred during a civil war and world powers would likely have had to make a renewed commitment to exercising significant restraint in the sale and/or transfer of sophisticated military technology to 3rd parties.
It is perhaps a sad indictment of our current world that the actual response has been so different.
Before the report had even been published, the defence company that produces the BUK missiles had been on TV to give a press statement rebutting any suggestions the missile could have been Russian. Moreover, Russian commentators and press outlets eagerly republished any and all commentaries, however fanciful (and often blatantly wrong) they could find to discredit the work of the Dutch Safety board.
But while Russia’s behaviour is perhaps its “new-normal” and its misinformation/disinformation campaign something that is increasingly inevitable, the response from the EU and NATO has been unforgiveable.
When all is said and done, 193 Dutch citizens and multiple other EU and NATO nationals died because of a conflict created and sustained by the Russian Government. If the whole purpose of defence unions and political unions is to protect the rights, life’s and liberties of their citizens, then both institutions have clearly failed.
Instead of crippling EU led business sanctions and a global campaign to ostracise Russia in every global forum until they accept responsibility for the incident, it has been left to the Americans to launch the most aggressive sanctions while Europe dithered. Almost inexcusably, German economic interests in Russia very nearly prevented the sanctions in place to date, while other EU nations like Greece have actively courted Russian politicians for domestic gains.
What seems to have been lost in the political calculations of EU policy makers and commentators, who appear to have swiftly dropped interest in Ukraine in favour of halting the refugees from the Syria crisis, is the dangerous symbolism of tolerating Russia’s disinformation campaign. EU leaders may not be able to find all the evidence they want from the crash site, nor can they use the UN Security Council to launch an official investigations (though Malaysia tried and lost to Russia’s veto), but there are other options.
Firstly it is important to recognise that MH17 is globally considered to be an absolute tragedy, for which Malaysia, The Netherlands and Malaysia Airlines are globally recognised as having no hand in orchestrating. This is important. Global recognition of Russian culpability would be tantamount to global evidence that countries who sign deals with Russia and companies that do business with the Russian government, are tacitly supporting a nation that kills innocent civilians and then lies and attempts to apportion blame to others.
The testimony to how powerful this recognition is, lies in the extensive propaganda efforts Kremlin controlled media outlets have exercised to deny this outcome. Furthermore, recognition that Russia lies about atrocities that it commits would significantly undermine the credibility of Russian media both internationally and domestically, thus further weakening Russian soft power.
At every opportunity, at every forum and in every communiqué the leaders of Europe should take the chance to remind the world that Russia is lying to obscure its role in a massacre of innocent EU citizens. Some may say I’m naive for believing that words alone can make any meaningful impact on either Russia’s media policy or on finding justice for the families of the deceased. To them I say the following:
If we are to fail in our endeavours, we should fail knowing we tried. It is not possible in life to always get the outcome you want, but if Europe’s leaders truly value the life’s of their citizens and believe in Justice, Russian disinformation cannot be allowed to continue without public rebuke at every and all opportunities at every level of Europe’s political structure.
Secondly, they key to winning a war of narratives is consistency and persistency of your message across any and all mediums. The MH17 case is in many sense a unique opportunity to draw back the veil of Russia’s “trolling” campaign against opponents of the Kremlin’s narrative. Not only are the facts clear and available for all to see, but the consequences are also clearly known and internationally accepted as unacceptable and unforgiveable. Consistent repetition of the truth behind MH17 by all NATO members and EU nation states to all governments, firms and individuals, who have an interest and engagement with Russia, is a weapon of unimaginable power in this fight. It just isn’t being used.
It is difficult to write about the political consequences of a tragedy and harder still to argue that the event itself must be used to achieve certain outcomes. A fear of “devaluing the dead” or using a tragedy for “political purposes” often carries toxic connotations and in many cases this is rightly so.
But while I do not see our world as perfect, I do object when we fail to change those things which our within our realm to change. Russia’s involvement in Ukraine directly led to the deaths of all the passengers and crew of MH17 and while the perpetrators may never see trial, the world must never forget or allow the truth to be distorted away from this simple truth. That would be equally tragic.