We do not definitively know who fired the missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, resulting in the loss of all 298 souls on board. While the balance of evidence so far suggests that rebels who have been waging a war against the government in Kyiv since April of this year are responsible, the tragedy of MH17 should be understood as a warning about the risks of taking a hands-off approach to international affairs.
After all, as cynical and self-serving as Russian President Vladimir Putin has been by blaming Ukraine for the loss of MH17, claiming that the Ukrainian authorities are ultimately responsible for the tragedy because they resumed military operations in southeast Ukraine, there is an element of truth to his statement. If there had been no insurgency in Ukraine, there is no reason to believe that someone would have shot MH17 out of the sky. Whether it was Donbass insurgents who mistook MH17 for a Ukrainian air force plane, or Ukrainian forces who made the error, it was the fog of war in southeast Ukraine that made the mistake possible.
Putin has fanned the flames of war in Ukraine, first by invading and annexing the Crimean peninsula, and then by supporting Donetsk and Luhansk separatists by directly providing them with weapons and military advisers at worst, or, at best, letting Russian “war tourists” cross the Russian-Ukrainian border. However, Putin alone is not responsible. Since last November, when the maidan protests began, Canada, the United States and Europe have been slow to take action to help contain the political conflict in Ukraine. While the Kremlin provoked the war in Ukraine, and threw fuel on the fire, the rest of the world gave Vladimir Putin very little reason to change his course of action.
Europe has perhaps been the worst offender of the three. European governments and companies have continued to develop natural gas deals with Russia, while the violence in Ukraine has raged. Just last month, Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned natural gas company inked a deal with a consortium of firms, including Austrian, French, Italian and German companies, to build the South Stream pipeline, which will bring even more Russian natural gas to Central and Western Europe, and stands to make Europe more reliant than ever on Russia.
This dependence on Russian energy has hamstrung Europe’s policy-makers, who have struggled to put together a unified response to Ukraine’s troubles, and have been slow to impose anything but mild sanctions on a few individuals.
Yet Canada and the U.S. too have been slow to act. The U.S., which is the linchpin of global financial markets, only last week finally imposed severe sanctions on Russian state-owned firms that will seriously hamper their ability to do business. Canada’s government, while it has said many of the right things, delivered a limited amount of aid to Ukraine and sent military personnel to Eastern Europe to reassure Canada’s NATO allies, has otherwise shown little energy for lobbying its allies in Europe to take a firmer stance with the Kremlin.
Why Canada and the U.S. have been so slow to act is unclear. Is it a case of economic interests trumping a commitment to upholding democracy around the world? A belief that Putin has overplayed his hand in Ukraine, and things will eventually right themselves? An attitude that what happens on the other side of the world is none of our business, and unlikely to affect us anyways?
Whatever the explanation, it is clear that the logic is faulty. When a war rages anywhere in our globalized world, it can metastasize in ways we have not imagined. Twenty years ago, the Afghan civil war sowed the seeds for 9/11. In the Middle East, the Syrian civil war has spilled into Iraq. And today, in Ukraine, Russian revanchism and Western indifference have fuelled a conflict that has claimed the lives of people that played no role in it at all.
The only positive outcome of the MH17 tragedy is that it might be the point where all parties agree things have gone too far. This might be the event that convinces the Kremlin that the forces they helped unleash in Ukraine are effectively out of their control, and must be reined in, and that it is time to end the violence. If so, it is a shame that 298 innocents must lose their lives for Washington, Brussels and Ottawa to grapple with the world’s problems head on.