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Ukraine game changer
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 19 - 07 - 2014

For the second time this year, tragedy has befallen Malaysia Airlines. In March, one of its jets disappeared with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board in one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time. On Thursday, a Malaysian Boeing 777 crashed in a rebel-controlled part of eastern Ukraine on the way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people aboard. This second Malaysian plane, as opposed to the first, has been found – and apparently it was shot down by a missile. But it too shares a mystery: Who fired the missile?
The blame game started almost immediately after the crash. Ukraine blamed Russian-backed separatists fighting the Ukrainian military in the region. The separatists said they lacked the firepower to hit a plane flying at more than 30,000 feet and accused Ukraine of doing it. The fact is that pro-Russian rebel forces have established strongholds in the east of Ukraine since the ousting of president Viktor Yanukovych by protests earlier this year. Russia's military, with forces again massing at the Ukraine border, has the missile systems capable of such a strike. Separatist forces recently shot down a Ukrainian transport plane at 21,000 feet, which was out of range of known separatist weaponry.
It is theoretically possible that it could have been the Ukrainian armed forces, the rebels or the Russians, but it is highly unlikely that the rebel groups could have perpetrated the attack using a sophisticated ground-to-air missile system without Russian support. The episode adds to what Ukraine says is mounting evidence that Moscow is directly supporting separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine who have substantial quantities of powerful weapons.
Or it could have been a tragic mistake. Pro-Russian insurgents may have downed the plane by mistake, believing it was a Ukrainian army transport plane.
Regardless of who fired the missile, the impact of such an air disaster is huge, although the repercussions will differ depending on what happened. The downing of the Malaysian jet MH17 could massively increase pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin over his support for anti-government rebels. Already suffering under the impact of sanctions - tightened only a day before the crash by the US and EU - because of its annexation of Crimea, Moscow could be subjected to much more punitive measures if it is shown to be the source of the missiles used to target the civilian airliner. The tragedy also appeared certain to worsen the diplomatic showdown between Russia on one side and the US and the EU on the other over the Ukraine conflict. If separatists using Russian firepower or Russian forces brought down the plane, the US and EU would come under pressure to take tougher steps against Moscow.
There are ominous signs pointing in Russia's direction. Rebels have succeeded in downing a number of government aircraft while NATO has recently been warning about the irresponsible way in which powerful weapons like tanks, armored personnel carriers and Manpad surface-to-air missiles have been supplied to irregular militias in Ukraine.
No matter who did it, shooting down this Malaysian commercial airliner with almost 300 people aboard risks gravely escalating an already dangerous conflict in eastern Ukraine, turning what has been regional unrest into a full-blown international conflict.

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