In Kiev, Brussels, Washington and Ottawa, the response to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was angry and almost unanimous: The evidence was seen as clearly pointing at Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, which means Moscow itself was at least partly to blame.
But while Western powers like to refer to the “international community” when mustering a case they believe in, such solidarity doesn’t really exist. Among Russia’s allies – most crucially, its fellow members of the BRICS club of emerging powers (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) – the initial response to the tragedy was silence, followed by increasing skepticism of the evidence presented by the U.S. and Ukrainian governments.
That means Russia – even as Western governments move to punish the Kremlin for its continued support of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic by escalating economic sanctions – will still have an escape valve for its economy. As markets in the West close, Moscow can turn east and south, a process under way since March, when the first Western sanctions were implemented in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
The media commentary in China, in particular, has been in step with the Kremlin’s own statements – criticizing the West for judging Russia too quickly and without enough proof. Beijing has echoed Moscow’s calls for a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and an “objective” probe into what happened. The official Xinhua newswire printed – unchallenged – the Russian military’s claim that it had detected a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet flying near the Malaysian passenger plane shortly before the explosion that brought Flight MH17 down.
“The Western rush to judge Russia is not based on evidence or logic. Russia had no motive to bring down MH17; doing so would only narrow its political and moral space to operate in the Ukrainian crisis. The tragedy has no political benefit for Ukrainian [pro-Russian] rebel forces, either,” read an editorial this week in Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the ruling Communist Party of China. The paper called for the downing of Flight 17 to be investigated “without preconditions or preconceptions.”
“Russia has been back-footed, forced into a passive stance by Western reaction. It is yet another example of the power of Western opinion as a political tool,” the editorial continued.
And it’s not just China, although Beijing’s status as the world’s second superpower gives it special clout. There have been only messages of condolence, and no condemnations of Mr. Putin, from leaders of Brazil, India and South Africa following the plane crash.
“First, it should be established what really happened,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said. “The Brazilian government will give no assessments until the circumstances are clear.”
Even the European Union – where most of the 298 dead on board Flight 17 were from – seems reticent to go as far as the United States and Canada in new sanctions against Russia. The 28-nation bloc said Tuesday it would impose an arms embargo on Russia and financial restrictions on Russian firms, but the details of those proposals were still to be worked out amid squabbling over who should bear the brunt of the pain while confronting the Kremlin.
Britain criticized France for going ahead with the planned sale of two advanced warships to Russia, while France retorted that Britain should concern itself first with the Russian oligarchs living in London. The business lobbies in Germany, Italy and Cyprus are also loudly opposed to any new sanctions.
“The U.S. is saying ‘All the international community is with us,’ but even the Europeans aren’t really with us,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a New York-based consulting firm that analyzes political risk.
Mr. Bremmer added that while Mr. Putin has been facing intense pressure from the West since the crash, the Kremlin’s strategic situation hasn’t been significantly altered. Many of the sanctions the West has announced since last week were likely coming anyway. Meanwhile, the battle for control of Ukraine – with Russia seeking, through its proxies, to weaken the central government and force it to give up its ambitions to join the EU and NATO – still rages with no compromise in sight.
On Wednesday, the Ukrainian army said it had made gains around the separatist capital of Donetsk, with the pro-Russian rebels withdrawing from the outskirts to positions in the city centre. Ominously, two Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down, with Kiev claiming they had been hit by missiles fired from Russia.
Mr. Bremmer called the downing of Flight 17 an “accelerant” to the Ukraine crisis, rather than a turning point. “You would think that the downing of an airplane with 300 people on it, most of which are from Europe, would have an enormous impact on the way the world views this crisis, but the fact is, it really doesn’t.”
China and Russia – despite a long history of enmity – have been pushed toward a closer alliance in recent years by their shared feeling of American military containment. Both governments also see a string of recent popular uprisings, such as the one that toppled the Moscow-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine earlier this year, as sponsored and encouraged by the United States, feeding paranoia that Washington could try and stir up unrest in Beijing or Moscow.
There are also economic benefits to being one of Russia’s few friends right now. As the EU frets over how to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas, China has happily become a larger consumer, signing a 30-year deal in May to buy Russian gas amid suggestions that Western sanctions helped Beijing get a better deal from Moscow.
Two days before the crash, Mr. Putin and the other BRICS leaders were in Rio de Janeiro to announce the establishment of a BRICS-backed New Development Bank, with $50-billion (U.S.) in initial capitalization, as well as a $100-billion currency reserve fund. Those developments are an enormous challenge to the Western-dominated economic order of the past 70 years, and more important to the participating governments than placing blame over a downed passenger plane.
While China is openly receptive to the Russian narrative of what happened to Flight 17, media in the other BRICS countries have generally covered the downing of the plane as a straightforward tragedy.
Where there’s a sense that Russia may have erred, there’s also concern at how the West has sought to pressure the Kremlin. “Putin must be given the space to do the right thing in terms of international law, which he has indicated he will do,” read an editorial Tuesday in South Africa’s Business Day newspaper. “Excessive diplomatic, economic or military pressure now would drive him further into a corner and risk aggression prompted by defensiveness.”
Even Malaysia has been careful not to lay blame. The leader of the Malaysian team that travelled to Donetsk to collect the “black box” flight recorders from the rebels raised eyebrows when he addressed Aleksandr Borodai – the self-proclaimed “prime minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic – as “your excellency” while thanking him for his co-operation.