Finian Cunningham Strategic Culture Foundation
The downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 over eastern Ukraine with the loss of all 298 onboard comes amid mounting frustration between Washington and its European allies over the imposition of further trade sanctions on Russia.
Days before the doomed flight, American officials were quietly voicing their agitation at European leaders’ reluctance to apply sanctions that would hit Russia’s key economic sectors.
While media reports earlier this week suggested that the US and the European Union were adopting a “united front” in the ramping up of penalties on Moscow, the underlying reality was very different. EU leaders were actually telling media that they were not yet ready to go beyond existing sanctions against Russian individuals, by following Washington’s latest measures against Russia’s energy, banking and defense sectors.
Now various Western media pundits are talking of a “game-changer” with the downing of the Malaysian Boeing 777 near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. The flight was most likely hit by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile while cruising at a mid-air altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet).
Perhaps significantly, most of the passengers onboard the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were European nationals, mainly from the Netherlands and Britain, as well as Germany and Belgium. With over 170 passengers, the Dutch contingency was the largest onboard.
Let’s step back a bit
Following the Western-backed coup in Ukraine on February 23, geopolitical tensions escalated further during March when the southern Crimea Peninsula voted in a referendum to join the Russian Federation. Washington and its European allies immediately launched vitriolic attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin for what they said was an illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory. Western media chimed in with lurid claims that Putin was the “new Hitler” and that the Russian leader was trying to resurrect the old Soviet Union.
Initially, Washington and European governments threatened that they would together ratchet up trade sanctions on Russia if Moscow did not hand back Crimea and also if it did not stop stoking other separatist revolts in the Ukraine’s eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.
On March 25 while hosting US President Barack Obama in The Hague, Dutch premier Mark Rutte spoke of a united front.
Rutte told US news channel CNBC: “It’s difficult to foresee whether he [Russian President Vladimir Putin] will retract from Crimea or not, but I do feel that Russia senses we are serious and we want them to give up the Crimea, and at least prevent this conflict from spiraling to other regions of Ukraine.”
However, since that time there has been a notable divergence between the American and European positions over the Ukraine crisis. Washington has been pushing a more aggressive policy to hit Russian economic sectors, while Europe is reluctant to go beyond the more symbolic sanctions that target Russian individual politicians and businessmen.
With Europe heavily dependent on Russian trade, particularly in the energy sector, European governments soon realized that ratcheting up more aggressive sanctions would inflict serious damage on their own economies far more than the American economy.
Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece and Spain have emerged as the main political obstacles in Europe to implementing the US tough line.
Prominent among the European commercial concerns are those of its energy companies. Royal Dutch Shell is one of the most exposed European conglomerates if Western sanctions were to be stepped up further on Russia.
It is notable that within days of the Dutch premier’s seemingly tough stance reported in March, the Chief Executive of Shell, Ben van Beurden, visited Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin at the latter’s Moscow residence. The Shell boss reportedly reassured Putin that the energy giant was still proceeding with ambitious plans to expand oil and gas projects in Russia’s far-east despite Western sanctions.
Shell is partnered with Russia’s state-owned Gazprom in developing the Sakhalin-2 Project, which is reputed to be one of the world’s biggest oil and gas exploration ventures. In particular, the project is aimed at developing Liquefied Natural Gas for the Japanese and South Korean markets — in direct competition to American commercial interests in its own new LNG industry.
If the EU were to adopt US-led sanctions on Russia’s energy sector, Royal Dutch Shell and other European giants, such as British Petroleum, stand to lose billions of dollars-worth of investments. It can be safely assumed therefore that these companies have been lobbying their respective governments to show restraint on applying sectoral sanctions.
This was clear earlier this week when the White House announced a further round of economic penalties against Russia.
The New York Times reported: “President Obama escalated sanctions against Russia on Wednesday by targeting a series of large banks and energy and defense firms in what officials described as the most punishing measures to date for Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.”
But The Times further adds: “The moves were coordinated with European leaders, who were meeting in Brussels on Wednesday to consider their own package of penalties against Russia. The Europeans declined to go as far as the United States, instead focusing on a plan to block loans for new projects in Russia by European investment and development banks.”
What would it take for the Americans to pull the Europeans into a more aggressive line?
Within hours of the Malaysian airliner smashing into the wheat fields in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border, US official sources began drip-feeding their trusted news outlets with a narrative implicating Russia.
On Friday, the Reuters news agency reported: “One US official said Washington strongly suspected the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was downed by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile fired by Ukrainian separatists backed by Moscow.”
On the same day, the Wall Street Journal had this: “US agencies are divided over whether the missile was launched by the Russian military or by pro-Russia separatist rebels, who officials say lack the expertise on their own to bring down a commercial airliner in mid-flight.”
An astounding giveaway in the above Reuters report is the following editorial comment carried in subsequent paragraphs:
“While the West has imposed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, the United States has been more aggressive than the European Union in this respect. Analysts believe a robust response of Germany and other European powers to the incident (of the downed airliner) could be crucial in deciding the next phase of the stand-off with Moscow”.
Officially, Washington has refrained from making explicit accusations against Moscow. That role has been taken up by hot-heads and mavericks like the Senator John McCain and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who both rushed to lay the blame on Russia over the crashed airliner.
The Washington-installed regime in Kiev has also predictably piled on the inflammatory rhetoric accusing Moscow of involvement in the catastrophe without producing a shred of evidence.
The dubiously elected pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko immediately labelled “Russian-backed terrorists” as the culprits, while the acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk demanded international action against Moscow.
With typical hysteria, Yatsenyuk said: “This is a crime against humanity. All red lines have been already crossed [...] We ask our international partners to call an emergency UN Security Council meeting and to do everything we can to stop this war: a war against Ukraine, a war against Europe, and after these terrorists shot down a Malaysian aircraft, this is a war against the world.”
Yatsenyuk added: “Everyone is to be accountable and responsible. I mean everyone who supports these terrorists, including Russians and the Russian regime”.
The Kiev junta may lack the sophistication of Washington in the finer points of black arts. But it seems clear that there is a concerted effort to frame Russia over this horrendous air disaster. In the stampede to lay the blame, crucial facts are irrelevant or dismissed. What about local eyewitness reports that claim they saw Ukrainian army units fire surface-to-air missiles, or official Russian military sources who say they have radar traces on the ill-fated day also implicating the pro-Kiev forces?
When assessing culpability, it is not only significant to ask the criminologist’s question: who benefits? It is also significant to observe how the political and media reaction to events quickly takes on an unmistakably scripted pre-ordained formula. In this case, there is more than a pungent whiff of premeditated action-reaction dialectic going on.
US geopolitical interests are best served by this atrocity, which may help shocking a laggardly Europe into adopting aggressive sanctions towards Russia, even though that militates against European economic concerns. Shooting down a civilian airliner would ensure blowing a decisive rift between Europe and Russia.