James Brown
MH17 and our place in the world

Last year, more than 8 million people flew from Australia’s shores into the world. Last week, 37 did not return. Now, from here, we smell a burnt field in eastern Ukraine. Our head sits in the chamber of the United Nations Security Council in New York. Our gaze firmly fixed on President Putin in Moscow. Our heart with pockets of grieving families all across the country. They will now mark two lives lived – one before July 17, and another after.

Because we are travellers, and air travellers at that, aircraft crashes jolt the Australian psyche in ways that other transport tragedies do not. For those of us who watched the reports of the downing of flight MH17 there was a sense of a near miss. For the prime minister it verily was, reflecting that his own daughters had travelled the same route earlier this year. But though journeying across the globe is familiar, the world of surface-to-air missiles, armed separatist groups and their Spetsnaz sponsors is entirely foreign. A virus our system can’t quite recognise, nor often comprehend.

But we have responded well enough. Three things needed to happen this past week. A strong statement against the perpetrators of the act, a push to take a leadership role in the crash investigation, and resolute action through the security council to pave the way for access to the crash site and set the tone for subsequent actions against the perpetrators. 

The prime minister was quicker than most world leaders to put the blame for this incident at the foot of the Kremlin, briefed well by Australian intelligence agencies who have trusted access to US intelligence systems for just such an eventuality. The decision to appoint Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston as special envoy to Kiev was entirely appropriate given Houston’s military experience and recent work co-ordinating with international civilian aviation authorities and Malaysian airlines.

Australia’s experts, particularly Houston, will be welcomed in the Ukraine, and are likely to strongly influence the direction of the international crash investigation. They have little of the baggage of Ukrainian officials, nor of NATO officials for that matter. They have superior skills to Malaysian investigators, as demonstrated in the recent search for MH370. Houston’s background will be useful, too: the crash site lies in the middle of a very active combat zone and the Ukrainian military might yet seek to press every tactical advantage that this incident brings them.

At the UN, Australia’s leadership role on the security council has proved fortuitous. Like many, I was sceptical of Australia’s campaign to be elected to this forum – I didn’t like the grubby business of securing votes in the Caribbean, nor the suggestion that the governor-general had hit the campaign trail through African republics. Like many, this week I’ve been reminded that for all its faults, the UN still matters and playing a part there is important.

The security council is a strange world, where expert diplomats labour for hours and success can be marked by seeing a word like “despicable” appear in a formal statement. Yet furious personal lobbying, including by the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, forged the consensus to get international investigators into eastern Ukraine and the moral authority to pressure Russia’s president to co-operate in discovering the perpetrators and seeking justice.

Vladimir Putin is a man for whom artifice is an asset and subterfuge a professional habit. While his little green men have been fuelling rebellion in eastern Ukraine, Putin has avoided accountability through the fog of both the ground and propaganda war. But this time, there will be a trail directly from the missile that shot down flight MH17 to the complex military system that Russia likely provided to the men who pulled the trigger.

But despite the good work mobilising the security council, the justice that Australia is now seeking is very unlikely to be achieved. Putin has every incentive in the world to make sure that the separatists who shot down the flight are never able to discuss how it was that they procured sophisticated military weaponry, nor who it was that trained them in its use. 

When Pan Am flight 103 was blown from the sky in 1988, it took 11 years of sustained international pressure before Libya was convinced to hand over one of the alleged perpetrators for trial in a Scottish court in The Hague. 

In this case, I don’t think it’s likely that bereaved families will ever have the opportunity to see the missile crew and their sponsors brought to justice. Even if they could be found, it would be difficult to build the case against them. US satellite images on the floor of the UN Security Council aren’t quite the currency they used to be.

For those reasons, the emotive energy that is manifesting now as grief may soon turn to anger and frustration. Australia’s government must now guard against its response and rhetoric becoming too emotive. Naming the recovery effort Operation Bring Them Home hasn’t helped in this regard, although the Australian Defence Force is using a different operational title. As a US analyst noted, outrage cannot be a policy, nor grief a strategy. The government should take no notice of angry commentators who urge that Putin be barred from the forthcoming G20 summit. 

If anything, the Brisbane meeting will provide an opportunity for Australians to directly take their message to Putin through public protest, and for Australian leaders to privately sustain political pressure on Russia.

The system that permits us to propel passenger planes into the air on one continent and land them safely on another is no accident. The global security that underpins our everyday life requires constant maintenance and support. Neglecting the festering sore of conflict in eastern Ukraine, and failing to set limits on those who would use brutish power marshalled to support geopolitical aims, has consequences. And those consequences can be felt from Adelaide to Archangel. An Australian military leader has put it best recently: no island is an island.

The image of Australian bodies loaded into an industrial train on a shunting in eastern Europe forces us to confront questions about what kind of power we want to be in the world. Alone, we could never put pressure on a global nuclear giant such as Russia. As an ally, partner and good global citizen, we not only have a say but influence outcomes. 

We must also face the question of what sort of price we are prepared to pay for the maintenance of global security. 

The best outcome we can now hope for from the MH17 crash is that international pressure forces Russia to cease its covert assistance of rebel groups fighting in Ukraine, and that a ceasefire between warring parties there can be negotiated. That kind of agreement might require UN members to contribute peacekeepers into the landscape now dotted by charred aircraft steel. 

We should now be thinking about what kind of contribution we would be willing to make. Will we risk further Australian lives to keep good order on the other side of the globe? How much of the burden are we willing to shoulder so that those Australians who leave our shores can eventually return?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 26, 2014 as "MH17 and our place in the world".

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James Brown is the research director of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.