It is now unquestionably an international event – the killing of 298 passengers and crew, from a dozen countries, on an Asian flight taking them from Western Europe to Southeast Asia and Australia – and it is one, whatever its specific cause, for which Russian President Vladimir Putin will have to answer, and for which those countries with victims, including Canada, will need to respond without compromise.
The killing of civilians during a conflict, whether done deliberately or through a tactical disregard for their safety, is a war crime under international humanitarian law. This was almost certainly not deliberate, and we should avoid the sort of hyperbole that likens the downing of MH17 to a Pearl Harbor or a Sept. 11. But it was also an act of war, and it is a war that would not be taking place if Mr. Putin had not decided to allow Russian and Russian-supporting militias to attempt to seize part of eastern Ukraine. These civilian deaths are a consequence of his decisions.
On another level, this is not new information. The shooting down of the airliner has raised the scale of horror to a new level, one that involves the corpses of scores of children, but it has not altered the basic facts of this conflict. It is international, it is killing civilians, it is an assault on European unity and democracy that cannot be accepted.
Step back a few paces, and consider what else was taking place in Ukraine on the morning of Thursday, July 17 – events that, if we had not been distracted by other conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, would have made that day’s catastrophe slightly less surprising.
That morning, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the combatants in eastern Ukraine, expressing alarm about “the shelling of a hospital in Krasny Liman and air strikes in the villages of Luhanskaya and Kondrashevka,” events in which Ukrainian forces had killed dozens of civilians; a few days earlier, the international organization had issued a report documenting war crimes committed by Russian-backed separatist rebels and by Ukrainian forces, who together had killed 257 civilians, including 14 children.
Also on Thursday morning, the journal Foreign Policy issued a report headlined “Russia is firing missiles at Ukraine,” offering considerable empirical evidence that Russian BM-21 Grad unguided truck-mounted missiles were being fired across the Russia-Ukraine border; they likely caused the July 11 strike on a Ukrainian convoy that killed 19 Ukrainian servicemen and injured as many as 100. It’s part of a large body of evidence showing that this is not a Ukrainian civil war with Russian armaments but predominantly a Russian military incursion into Ukrainian territory with some local support, and that Mr. Putin’s more conciliatory language in recent weeks is not translating into reduced hostility.
Moscow’s decisions, in other words, had already brought about an international threat to democracy, national sovereignty and European institutions, and they had already caused the deaths of hundreds of civilians. The downing of flight MH17 has raised this existing reality to a morally unfathomable level.
It also made it painfully clear that the world has not acted fast enough to curtail Russia’s manufacture of chaos in the region.
That was driven home by another event that took place on Thursday – one, in fact, that took place at the very moment the flight’s remains were being discovered: U.S. President Barack Obama phoned Mr. Putin to announce the first really crippling sanctions against Russia, sanctions that will prevent its largest petroleum, energy and defence companies from operating in the West (they were told of the jetliner tragedy near the end of the call).
It was hard to miss the tragedy of this timing: If these sanctions, and even tougher ones, had come into force weeks earlier, is it possible that Mr. Putin would have folded the tent and backed away from Ukraine, and the jetliner would have continued to Kuala Lumpur?
In this case, it was Mr. Obama who had been aggressive in seeking action against Russia (as had Canada); it was his European partners who had balked, stalled and delayed. On Friday, European officials made it known that they are finally considering actions that will fully isolate Russia from the developed world economy – the sort of action called for when serious war crimes are being committed. These should be imposed quickly, without delay or compromise, and with a clear sense of the human lives at stake in this entirely preventable conflict.