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Australia's diplomatic role amid MH17 fallout

Tony Kevin |  21 July 2014

PutinThe MH17 tragedy had many fathers. Before discussing the main guilty party — Putin's Russian government — something must be said about the contributory roles of the Kiev government, the international airlines' association (IATA) and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) members, and Malaysian Airlines.

Many airlines including British Airways, Qantas, Korean Air and Asiana had prudently stopped flying over the Eastern Ukraine conflict zone months ago. But some, including Malaysian Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Etihad, continued to do so because of the fuel savings using the minimum-distance great circle route between Europe and Dubai and Asia, which passes over Ukraine.

IATA defended this practice because it said ICAO, the international regulatory agency, had approved this route, provided Crimea was avoided (because of the risk of uncontrolled aircraft) and a 'safe' height maintained. The Ukrainian government, not wanting to lose substantial overflight fees and trying to maintain the fiction that only 'criminal bandits' were involved in unrest in the east, had assured ICAO that routes over Ukraine were safe. 

The fact that many airlines prudently decided to avoid overflying the conflict zone in Eastern Ukraine, and that over the past five weeks insurgents had shot down at least three Ukrainian military aircraft in the conflict area, suggests that the airlines that continued to overfly the area, the members of IATA and ICAO that did not speak out against this practice, and the government in Kiev, are all guilty of substantial contributory negligence.

Had they done their job, the criminals who brought down MH17 would have had no civil aircraft to shoot at. Now, of course, it is an ICAO-declared no-fly zone.

Nevertheless Moscow emerges as the immediate and main contributor. Moscow is encouraging and supplying the military insurgency in Eastern Ukraine. It is clear now that Russian BUK (surface-to-air) units had begun to shoot down Ukrainian military aircraft from insurgent-held areas of Eastern Ukraine in recent weeks.

Whether these units were staffed by Russian-trained Ukrainian soldiers, or by Russian nationals, is unclear at this stage. There is evidence published by Kiev that BUK units were hastily moved twice across the border (Russia is only 30 miles from the crash site).

It seems Russia — despite knowing international airlines were still overflying the area at height — took no safety precautions in the use of these units.

What we know, because of Australia's membership of the five-power intelligence club, comes from satellite imagery. US Secretary of State John Kerry said evidence that it was a Russian missile fired from Russian-supported insurgent territory is overwhelming, based on both satellite imagery (the most important source) and those chilling telephony intercepts (already published by Ukrainian sources days ago).

Initially I was uneasy about Tony Abbott's strong anti-Putin rhetoric from the moment news broke. Why was Australia so upfront, so early? I thought he was jumping to conclusions too soon. It is clear now though that his response was based on that same satellite imagery intelligence that Kerry and Hilary Clinton cite. He was right, and Bill Shorten has correctly supported him.

Students of the Australian-American alliance will ask whether it was Abbott's own decision to get so far out in front so early, or whether he was prompted by Washington.

The Netherlands, which lost the most citizens, was curiously reticent in the first two days. The Dutch PM finally showed real passion as reports came in of mistreatment of human remains and looting of luggage. The Netherlands, highly dependent on Russian-sourced gas, has a lot at stake in trying to maintain warm diplomatic relations with Putin. They have been the least supportive of NATO sanctions against Russia over Crimea.

Did Abbott, or did Washington, think that the Netherlands Government needed to be shamed into standing up more vigorously for its own victims?

The US itself was circumspect in the first two days, tacitly offering Putin the courtesy of time to modify his truculent public position. Now, the gloves are off in Washington too.

Australia's seat on the UN Security Council until the end of 2014, and the fact that we lost 37 citizens and permanent residents in the shootdown, gave Canberra legitimacy for active pressure on Moscow from the start. That campaign bore fruit today. In the end, Putin had to speak to Abbott and make conciliatory noises. But as Abbott says, the proof will be in the action. Now, it is Australia's (and Julie Bishop's) moment in the UNSC.

The West's diplomatic difficulty is that satellite-gained intelligence cannot be used to establish legal accountability. It may be problematical whether the black boxes (if released untampered) and on-ground evidence can firmly support what Abbott, British PM Cameron, Kerry and Clinton have so firmly said.

But in the court of world public opinion, blame now firmly attaches to Russia for its criminal irresponsibility in arming insurgents with powerful surface-to-air missiles that could bring down an international airliner flying six miles above the conflict area; in not ensuring proper safeguards for the weapons, and possibly also trained personnel, that it supplied to the insurgents; and in not insisting that ICAO airlines stop flying over the area.

The consequences for East-West relations will be serious, though they are still hard to foresee in detail. I don't see WW3 starting over this — it isn't Sarajevo — but I do see the prospect of a new Cold War. Kerry and Cameron have both signalled that the West must re-evaluate its relationship with Russia.

It is hard to see how Putin can back down and admit fault, he has too much invested at home in his Great Russian ideological stance from which flows his sympathy for the Eastern Ukraine separatists. Washington and its newly tough European NATO partners will not let him off the hook easily.

I doubt Putin will come to G20 in Australia. He knows how unwelcome he will be. He emerges from the tragedy with a sharply diminished international reputation for him and his nation.

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Cambodia and Poland and author of several books including Reluctant Rescuers.



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Submitted comments

I didn't write here - because it seemed so obvious, but perhaps on just reading one of the comments on Andy Hamilton's fine essay it is not - that I don't think the people who fired this missile intended to bring down an innocent overflying foreign aircraft. But their callous indifference (as seen from intercepts) when they realised what they had done, and their clumsy and cruel efforts to conceal it all by delay and obfuscation, makes the whole tragedy more than just an unfortunate accident of the 'I didn't know the gun was loaded' variety. There must be real and deep criminal negligence at work here, and an evil indifference to the value of innocent human lives. .

tony kevin 21 July 2014

The US arms almost the entire world, this is a fact. Why is Putin singled out by former cold war warriors.

Marilyn 21 July 2014

With the huff and puff from Abbott and Shorten, can we now expect openness from both to the Australian Electorate re Asylum seekers and the Parliaments don't care attitude to them and their families.

John Watherston 22 July 2014

Thank you for this insight.

Jenny Holden 22 July 2014

Thank you Tony for a brilliant, balanced and intriguing article. My only comment to add is that to assume any airline route is safe simply because of lines drawn on a map is folly. Carelessly operated Buk missiles do not turn around at borders. I am also concerned that, after such a appalling demonstration, terrorist groups must be working hard to acquire these grotesque weapons.

Martin Loney 22 July 2014

We should be proud that Tony Abbott is our Prime Minister, by leading the global community's response in calling for justice,respect for the victims and proper processes. People who voted for Tony Abbott, knew he would be a good Prime Minister. Now we know he is also a great Statesman after his successful visits to Indonesia, Japan, South Korea China, France and USA. And success in stopping the boats and repeal the Carbon tax. Thank you Tony,

Ron Cini 22 July 2014

Mr Kevin, You're not trhe only Australian with a broad experience at first hand of international diplomacy. I'm disappointed you're not shouting your praises from the rooftops in congratulating Abbott and Minister Bishop in leading the world and negotating unanimity in condemning this abominable act. Even Putin got into line behind Abbott. This could well be Australia's greatest ever diplomatic coup

Bill Barry 22 July 2014

Abbott still jumped the gun, he has pissed off Russia and China of late.....for a country with zero military power I dunno if that's smart. He needs to let America do the talking.

Lou Renolds 23 July 2014

Some interesting insights here, especially about the Dutch response. However you fail to acknowledge the significant arms trade between Britain, france and Russia. Surely this is muddying diplomatic waters too!

John Collard 25 July 2014

When the Berlin Wall came down it was agreed the West would not 'encircle' Russia by moving east. Today the west supported extreme right non-elected government forces in Ukraine are 30 miles from the Russian border. I for one am thankful the Russians (not the US and not Churchill) stopped Hitler and the Nazi machine at great great cost in people and suffering - and I understand Russia's concern not to be exposed to another dose of European. lunacy. Some attention to learning the lessons of history and context would have prevented the current situation developing. This incident is a tragedy - war is tragic. It is the West's foremost responsibility to bring the war criminals who decided unprovoked to invade Iraq and caused massive death, suffering and destruction to justice. Including Abbot.

Aralinga 27 July 2014

Why has Australia (& Netherlands, Belgium,Ukraine) signed a non-disclosure agreement on the MH17 report? Because this "proof" of Eastern rebel guilt doesn't exist? Russia has published its civilian data (& no doubt has more of a military nature) showing that Kiev lied about their aircraft not being nearby. Why are the Air-traffic control tapes still in Kiev's hands and unpublished? Why have Anthony and Bronwyn gone deathly quiet about "catching those responsible? Why the secrecy? Quite simply because this is a Kiev false-flag operation gone badly wrong and the evidence is damning to the West.

Jeff 26 August 2014

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