Condemnation offset by caution is imperative in negotiating the aftermath of MH17. But for grief-stricken families, it means little. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Relations in the firing line in wake of MH17

The smouldering wreckage site of Malaysia Airlines MH17.

The two acts were finely calibrated, both the missile launch and Australia’s response to it. The barbarous idiocy that destroyed MH17 was not without sophistication, the missile’s accuracy predicated upon the successful command of a launch algorithm. That BUK missile, presumably triggered by pro-Russian separatists, was designed to explode metres from its target, rather than hitting it directly. 

Thirty-one thousand feet (9500 metres) above Ukrainian wheatfields, shrapnel frayed the fuselage of the Boeing 777. It resulted in “massive explosive decompression”. Passengers would have lost consciousness almost immediately, their lungs collapsed and limbs frostbitten. It’s likely a thick fog, caused by dramatic pressure loss and the cold outside air, gently covered the passengers still contained in the shredded cabin. For the dislodged passengers, their bodies “fell like bullets”, according to witnesses. 

In Canberra, Prime Minister Tony Abbott received the news about 2am on July 18. His daughters had flown the same path some months before. For a man dogged by gaffes, perceptions of vulgarity, and a sense of gravitas imperilled by a lack of preparedness, Abbott immediately intuited the role of statesman. He balanced muscularity, caution and sympathy. Rhetorically, it was a difficult formula. Australian disgust and melancholy had to be reflected, but Abbott couldn’t speak so incautiously that he jeopardised our role in the investigation and recovery operation. He sided with the former, and was most blunt when attributing culpability to the Russian separatists. 

On July 18 he spoke in parliament. “We owe it as well to the families of the dead to find out exactly what has happened and exactly who is responsible. As things stand, this looks less like an accident than a crime. I want to repeat this: as things stand, this looks less like an accident than a crime. If so, the perpetrators must be brought to justice.”

Abbott finished with the peroration: “The bullying of small countries by big ones, the trampling of justice and decency in the pursuit of national aggrandisement and reckless indifference to human life, should have no place in our world.” 

Later that day, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop summoned the Russian ambassador Vladimir Morozov for a private meeting. It did not go well. Morozov blamed the Ukraine for the disaster, obliging Abbott to publicly condemn Morozov’s private intransigence. “I have to say that is deeply, deeply unsatisfactory,” he said. The next day, Bishop was flying to the UN headquarters in New York to lead the push for a resolution which “demands that the armed groups in control of the crash site and the surrounding area refrain from any actions that may compromise the integrity of the crash site, including by refraining from destroying, moving or disturbing wreckage, equipment, debris, personal belongings or remains.” 

Abbott had quickly found his voice. But so had others. Commentators inveighed boorishly, marking Abbott highly on strength while citing Barack Obama’s and Europe’s weakness in confronting Vladimir Putin’s aggression. They were subtly invoking the century-old European indifference that preceded World War I, but they were mistaking realpolitik for cowardice. Russia has the Bomb and the gas, and Europe a taste for survival and electricity. Abbott has led admirably, but he has also been lucky: Australia is not embroiled with Russia like much of Europe, and it has meant he can speak and act more freely. 

A former diplomat I spoke to about MH17 told me: “It’s the eternal argument: the optimistic internationalists versus the realists, who believe that it all comes down to self-interest. And I agree. I think that’s the dominant driver in international relations.” 

Hitherto, Russian sanctions have been soft because three pillars have been compromised: finance, arms and energy. Much of Russia’s oligarchical profits flow through London, while France is handsomely rewarded for its weapons sales to Putin. Meanwhile, much of the continent is dependent upon Russian gas. On the Charlie Rose program, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said part of Europe’s response should be to “come up with an alternative energy strategy that doesn’t leave you at the mercy of Putin”. 

As Bishop flew to New York, there were still questions about whether Europe and the US would assertively cohere around the disaster, or remain attenuated by vested interests. Abbott made clear his desire for the former. 

Australia’s voice had been amplified by its loss of 38 Australian citizens and residents, but also its recent inclusion in the UN’s Security Council. On July 22, the council unanimously passed Bishop’s resolution. It was a start, and a small triumph for Bishop, but for a body of such ostensible power it could only earnestly lend its imprimatur to the obvious. The real power rested with Ukrainian forces and Russia’s wild proxies. Ground zero was still occupied by festering bodies and artillery shells, the violent zone orbited by international rhetoric and thwarted ambitions to get in and investigate the scene. 

The following day, Abbott announced that bodies were finally being removed from the site and taken, initially, to the Netherlands. On Sunday, July 27, he announced that Australian Federal Police officers would be joining investigators on the ground. Not long after that announcement, Peter Baines received a call. It was from a relative of an Australian victim. 

A former forensics officer in the NSW Police, Baines helped lead the Australian investigation and recovery operation in Bali after the 2002 bombing, and the recovery effort in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami. This relative had seen Baines speak years earlier, and found his contact details. They wanted advice. “I told them to prepare themselves for this thing taking some time,” he told me. “The complexity comes in with the numbers of victims. In Bali it was 202 people, and it took three months to identify them. A similar time frame can be expected here, but at least the passenger list is closed. They have the flight manifest. In Bali we had more people reported missing than were in the nightclub.”

Baines is plain spoken but authoritative. He’s on his way to the airport. Travel is a constant for him. “One of the things we learnt from Bali is that if you give information to victim’s families, you get understanding. So I explained the process to this relative of the MH17 victim. About why they can’t see the bodies. Why we can’t just target Australian victims. It softens their pain just slightly when they understand the process. You know, if you get fired or your partner leaves you – you need answers. You need to know why.”

Baines explained the similarities between his experiences and what the AFP officers will likely encounter when they enter the crash site – but at time of writing they’re still prevented by war from entering the site. “There’s two prongs to these things. There’s the criminal investigation and the identification of bodies. We know that most bodies have been removed and taken to a safe place – the Netherlands – so that leaves the criminal investigation. Already, you have a problem. Sites need to be left as they are. Bodies need to be left in situ. This is also well beyond a normal criminal investigation now – it’s almost an act of war. Regardless, investigators will want to collect evidence and attempt to reconstruct it in a safe place. But this is much more complex than Bali, and you have a contaminated and compromised crime scene.”

This week, the US and Europe increased sanctions against Russia, targeting finance and restricting its access to technologies that would assist its natural resources sector. For now, Australia is reluctant to increase its own sanctions while its AFP investigators are still dependent upon a Russian-backed ceasefire in order to enter the scene.  

Since reassuming the Russian presidency, Putin has led a radical renewal of nationalism. His country appears intoxicated by restoring lapsed prestige, even while supermarkets stand fallow. The dream is sustained by state-run television, and in turn it sustains Putin’s popularity despite an economy registering close to zero growth. The recent Sochi Winter Olympics – by far the most expensive in history – was evidence of an economy cannibalised by state-sanctioned mobsterism. 

The question for Europe will be whether it’s affordable or desirable to hasten Russia’s economic collapse with future sanctions – or the longer game of developing energy independence – and encourage domestic revolt against Putin. But the dream is deftly curated and fervently possessed, which leaves Europe fearing blowback: an alienated Russian population who martyr Putin and focus their contempt for the outside world that orchestrated their second fall. 

These questions are of scant interest to Fatima Dyczynski’s parents, who this week flew from Perth to numbly survey the wreckage site. The Dyczynskis are experiencing the awful warps and weaves of magical thinking, believing their daughter is still alive, and her plane subject to some sinister, as yet suppressed, conspiracy. Grief can be a rancid hallucinogen, and they are not wholly responsible for the shapes it conjures. Their suffering can only be witnessed solemnly; by only a few can it be understood. Fatima Dyczynski was an aerospace engineer, and was designing nano-satellites for space: a brilliant woman given to the future, murdered by men atavistically shackled to the past.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 2, 2014 as "Relations in the firing line". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.