America Cannot Save Ukraine: Why MH17 Changes Nothing

"The situation facing Ukraine is tragic, but not one of strategic significance to America."

The agony of the families of the 298 people who died on flight MH17 lives on. Unfortunately, however, even a thorough crash investigation might not solve the mystery as to who shot down the plane.

The downing of the Malaysian airliner created shock and calls for stronger action against Russia and its separatist clients in Ukraine. But the tragic shootdown, though an atrocity, changes nothing in practice. Indeed, the United States has little credibility in complaining about foreign interference or errant attacks on civilians.

American intelligence reportedly concluded that Russian separatists mistook the flight for a Ukrainian military plane, which seems most likely. By their own claims, they had Buk missiles, whether captured from Ukraine or provided by Russia. Moreover, they claimed to have downed a Ukrainian transport plane and had been shooting down Ukrainian planes with some regularity. But the rebels would gain no advantage from intentionally downing a foreign airliner.

Nevertheless, likely isn’t certain. In 2001, the Ukrainian military inadvertently downed a Russian airliner when an antiaircraft missile fired as part of an exercise missed the target drone. Still, the Ukrainian military had no cause to be firing antiaircraft missiles, since the separatists possess no air force. Kiev would gain from pinning a civilian shootdown on the insurgents. However, exposure of a Ukrainian “false flag” operation would have devastating consequences, and likely would deter serious consideration of such a course.

So, absent contrary evidence, policy makers should assume that the separatists did it, perhaps with missiles supplied from Russia. If so, then what to do?

Almost immediately after the incident in Ukraine, America’s hawks began stoking the war machine. Sen. John McCain said involvement of Russia or Russian separatists in the plane’s shootdown “would open the gates for us assisting, finally, giving the Ukrainians some defensive weapons [and] sanctions that would be imposed as a result of that. That would be the beginning.” Given the Senator’s propensity for calling for war, who knows what the end would be.

The better answer, however, remains to do largely nothing. The MH17 incident, while outrageous, actually is no trigger for anything. Errant attacks on civilians, while always tragic, are not unusual.

There were several mistaken downings of civilian airliners in World War II. The People’s Republic of China shot down a Hong Kong airliner in 1954, killing ten. A year later, Bulgaria downed an El Al flight that mistakenly flew into that nation’s airspace. Fifty-eight died. In 1973, Israel shot down a Libyan airliner, killing 108 people, in similar circumstances. Five years later, the Soviet Union forced down a South Korean flight; two people died in the emergency landing. In 1980, an Italian flight apparently was downed by a warplane suspected to be French but never officially identified, killing eighty-one passengers and crew. Three years later, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Airlines flight, mistaking it for a U.S. spy plane, killing all 269 on board, including a U.S. congressman.

In 1985, Polisario guerrillas in the Western Sahara downed a German research plane, killing three. Two years later, guerrillas in Mozambique shot down a civilian flight from Malawi. The following year, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner with 290 passengers and crew. Also in 1988, the Polisario downed a U.S.-chartered aid flight, killing five. A decade later, Sri Lankan Tamil guerrillas apparently downed an Indonesian airliner, killing fifty-five. In 2001, seventy-eight perished on the Russian flight downed by the Ukrainian missile. Six years later, a Belarus flight apparently was downed by Somali combatants, killing eleven.

However, in none of these cases was an accidental or erroneous shootdown sufficient for a casus belli. Not once did much of anything happen. Governments and guerrillas routinely dissembled. Their adversaries used the tragedies for propaganda purposes. Sometimes compensation was paid. But no retaliatory strikes were launched. No wars were fought. No governments abandoned military action, no insurgents retreated. Life pretty much went on as before, except for the victims and their loved ones.

Even during the Cold War, such incidents were resolved peacefully. While Ronald Reagan used the Korean Air incident against the Soviet Union, he did not move beyond diplomacy. And imagine the U.S. reaction had other nations joined Iran in taking military measures and imposing sanctions against America for blasting the latter’s airliner out of the sky.