Originally Published 2014-07-21 05:14:18 Published on Jul 21, 2014
If efforts to dilute tensions between the West and Russia fail, Delhi will have to intensify its engagement with Moscow to develop the relationship as leverage against what is perceived to be India's primary strategic challenge - the rise of China. India and Russia will have to creatively use various forums to circumscribe Chinese power.
MH-17 shooting down: A 'wake-up call' to work for truce
"The shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777, while a major new challenge to finding a solution to the crisis in Ukraine, could also be a wake-up call that will lead to a ceasefire and negotiated settlement.

On the surface, the tragedy appears to exacerbate the differences between Western-backed Ukraine and Russia. The downing of the aircraft has, naturally, sparked off international outrage and condemnation. The West and Ukraine were quick to blame Russia for the incident, providing what appears to them as irrefutable proof that the separatists backed by Moscow were responsible for shooting down the plane with a missile.

Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov was quick to refute the charges. "Some Western states and Kiev ... try to show to the whole world that we are responsible for the crash. It is very strange that without any evidence my colleagues from western media would like to find somebody who is responsible for the crash," Antonov said. "It seems to me that this is part of information warfare which has been started against the Russian Federation and (its) armed forces," he added voicing a long-held grievance.

The tragic incident makes it that much more difficult to get all parties involved in the Ukrainian conflict together in one room to seek a negotiated settlement. The differing versions of the events that led to the tragedy underscore the difficulties, which may eventually be insurmountable, in the path of finding a solution that will satisfy everyone.

The only facts on which all agree are that MH17 crashed over a part of Ukraine which is a warzone between the Ukrainian government and the so-called ’self defence forces’, allegedly supported by Russia and that the plane was flying too high to be destroyed by the portable or light vehicle mounted surface-to-air systems (SAMs) so far openly used by the separatists..

However, from the clamour created by the charges, counter charges and pure speculation about the incident, some elements can be discerned.

The missile that brought down the aircraft was probably a "Buk", what NATO calls "Gadfly". A Buk system is vehicle-mounted and fires missiles that can reach much higher than the reported altitude — 33,000 feet — of the Malaysian passenger jet. The Buk is a radar-guided missile, which could be fired without physical sighting of the target.

There are conflicting reports on whether the (Ukrainian rebels) anti-government forces possess these SAM batteries. Some separatists had recently claimed to have captured one from the Ukrainian Army, but other leaders have disputed this. What makes the allegation that the separatists fired the missile more credible is that a trained SAM battery military crew should have been able to distinguish the radar signature of a passenger plane from a military troop carrier. But the relatively inexperienced separatists, lacking extensive radar support, would lack the skills to make that distinction. Of course, the 2001 inexplicable downing of a Russian civilian plane by the Ukrainian military over the Black Sea makes such judgements difficult to make.

Another important piece of evidence supporting the allegation that the separatists shot down the plane are the recordings of conversations between military leaders of the ’self defence forces’ released by the Ukrainian authorities. There is little doubt that the speakers recorded on the tape are aware that a plane has been shot down, but appear shocked to discover that it is a civilian aircraft. There are, however, claims on the internet that question the authenticity of these recordings, claiming that the time stamp of the uploaded You Tube file suggests that the recording was made a day before the disaster.

There is also confusion about why the MH17 took this particular flight path given that Russian authorities had notified, well before the flight took off from Amsterdam, the closure of their airspace in the region. Although it is possible that the path may have been open at the altitude that the Malaysian aircraft was flying. It is also not clear why the airspace was not closed earlier over Ukrainian territory where several aircraft, albeit military, have been shot down recently.

These questions should be addressed by an authoritative investigation into the crash, to which all sides should provide whatever related evidence they possess. It would not help perceptions of impartiality of the investigation if the black boxes are handed over to Ukrainian or Russian authorities without some international oversight. This would only promote speculation about possible tampering.

Undoubtedly, the shooting down of MH17 with 295 passengers on board will widen the gulf separating the various parties in the Ukrainian conflict. But, a peaceful resolution of the conflict is the only way to prevent this conflict in the middle of Europe from spinning out of control.

The settlement will have to take into account the interests of all parties involved not only Ukraine, but Russia, the EU and the United States. If the Western states insist on settling the crisis without Russia’s involvement it appears unlikely that there will be an early resolution to this conflict. Russia should also understand that promoting separatists in Ukraine could lead to catastrophic consequences. On the other hand, further Western sanctions against the Kremlin will only exacerbate the situation and probably push Russia closer to China. Not an outcome India will relish.

India will have to tread very carefully in this imbroglio. It has in the past and continues to acknowledge that Russia has legitimate interests in Ukraine. However, at the same time Delhi will have to make sure that this position is not seen as endorsement of Russian support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

Moreover, if efforts to dilute tensions between the West and Russia fail, Delhi will have to intensify its engagement with Moscow to develop the relationship as leverage against what is perceived to be India’s primary strategic challenge - the rise of China. India and Russia will have to creatively use forums like the Russia-India-China trilateral, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and others to circumscribe Chinese power within a framework of internationally acceptable rules.

(Nandan Unnikrishnan is a Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. A version of this article appeared in The Telegraph, Kolkata on July 20, 2014.)

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Nandan Unnikrishnan

Nandan Unnikrishnan

Nandan Unnikrishnan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation New Delhi. He joined ORF in 2004. He looks after the Eurasia Programme of Studies. ...

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