Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Collateral damage is inevitable in the chaos of proxy war

The Americans and the Europeans are not going to go to war with Russia for Ukraine

Share

We live in an era in which great military powers do not want to confront each other directly so they operate through local proxies. This has the advantage that Russia was not openly intervening with its own troops in eastern Ukraine but could influence events on the ground by operating through heavily armed separatists whose exact relationship with the Russian security services could be kept murky and responsibility for their actions could be denied.

Nevertheless, it is clear from the intercepted phone call made 20 minutes after the Malaysian airliner had crashed that it is officers of the Russian armed forces who are calling the shots. The Ukrainian security service says that the call is between Igor Bezler, who it says is a Russian intelligence officer and a leading commander of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and Colonel Vasili Geranin in the intelligence department of the Russian armed forces. Other phone calls indicate that the plane was shot down by a Cossack detachment based at Chernukhino – even if the self-proclaimed leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, Alexander Borodai, has traded accusations with Kiev, claiming it was regular Ukrainian forces that were responsible for downing the plane.

It is a little strange that such damaging conversations should be taking place on open phone lines. But supposing these phone calls are verified, then they underline that command of separatist military formations is exercised by Russian security services. The advantage of using proxies is that it is possible to deny responsibility for what happened, but the disadvantage is that it is much more likely that a horrendous accident will occur.

The US and its allies face a similar danger in Iraq and Syria. A small number of shoulder-launched Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles have found their way into the hands of the rebels in Syria. But even this is enough to frighten some airlines away from using Baghdad International Airport, because these weapons might now be in possession of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), whatever the identity of the original recipients.

 

In the case of Ukraine it has always been in the interests of Russia to blur exactly how far behind the pro-Russian rebel forces in Ukraine the Russian armed forces were standing. At one point there were 40,000 Russian troops across the border, though some of these have been redeployed. The separatists were always well armed and have popular support in the industrial towns of the Donbas, the Russian-speaking industrial and mining area. It has always been propagandistic and misleading for Western politicians and media to pretend that those opposed to the government in Kiev are a small group of dissidents. In reality every election in Ukraine since the breakup of the Soviet Union and independence showed the country evenly divided between pro and anti-Russian parties.

The separatists have for some months demonstrably had the ability to use sophisticated weapons, as was shown by the shooting down of three Ukrainian helicopters over a month ago. In the event of a Ukrainian army assault, the separatists could be reinforced with more heavy weapons and, if necessary, by Russian “volunteers” or special forces, more or less disguised.

Read more: MH17 conspiracy theories start circulating
Students, Aids experts and nun among victims
PRO RUSSIAN SEPARATISTS 'DISCUSS SHOOTING PLANE DOWN'
UKRAINE REBELS DENY 'SHOOTING DOWN' JET
UKRAINE TO LAUNCH INVESTIGATION INTO CRASH

It was always a dangerous game. There were a number of overriding military facts. The most important of these is that the Americans and the Europeans are not going to go to war with Russia for Ukraine. All the well-publicised military exercises should not conceal this and it may be that the Ukrainian government has been over-encouraged by rhetorical declarations of support from Nato. It was never likely that the Russians would allow Ukrainian forces to carry out the military conquest of pro-Russian cities in the east without a military response.

The Russians evidently had decided to counter Ukrainian control of the air over separatist-held areas in the east. An Su-25 fighter and an An-26 transport plane were shot down on Monday and Wednesday, making it all the more amazing that commercial flights were still being routed over a war zone in which missiles had just been used.

Ukrainian and American officials say that the Malaysian airliner was hit by a missile, possibly an SA-11 Gadfly, a vehicle-mounted system of four surface-to-air missiles that can destroy high-performance aircraft or cruise missiles up to 72,000ft. Whether the separatists operated alone or in combination with Russian air defences remains a matter of dispute. What is not in dispute is the chronic danger of a slow-burning crisis in Ukraine in which the local allies of the West, in the shape of the government in Kiev, and the pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine are both likely to overplay their hands.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham  

It’s only natural for politicians like William Hague to end up as journalists

Simon Kelner
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago