The West’s cynical milking of the Ukraine air tragedy
The West is grotesquely trying to rebuild its prestige on the debris of MH17.
There are rumours that individuals in eastern Ukraine have looted some of the belongings of the 298 people who died in the Flight MH17 tragedy. If that’s true, it is despicable. But they aren’t the only ones exploiting the dead of this terrible incident. So is pretty much every politician and media outlet in the West. From Washington to London to Brussels, leaders and hacks have spent the past three days milking the MH17 tragedy, marching the dead to their cause of dividing the world once more between a fundamentally decent, honest West and a malevolent Russia led by the epitome of wickedness, Vladimir Putin. Where some east Ukrainians are alleged to have exploited the MH17 dead for financial gain, Western leaders are doing something just as foul, if not worse: they’re exploiting the dead for moral and political gain.
Taking chutzpah to new heights, Western leaders are wringing their hands over a tragedy that their own actions did a great deal to make possible. The moral script being foisted on us is that Putin is responsible for what happened to the Malaysian Airlines flight, which was allegedly shot down by pro-Russian separatists in the east of Ukraine. Reading the hotheaded media coverage and listening to Western politicians’ hyperbolic speeches, you could be forgiven for thinking Putin had prior knowledge of the tragedy, and maybe even okayed it. ‘Putin the terrorist’, scream frontpage headlines. Some accuse the Russian leader of ‘mass murder’, implying he not only knew that these 298 souls were going to perish but intentionally assisted with their perishing. What we have here is an attempt to squeeze what looks like a terrible mistake by Russian separatists into a moral script about murder. We’re witnessing the treatment of an error as an act of evil, the transformation of an accident into an act of malevolency by a wicked regime. Even worse, the very Western leaders now treating this tragic mistake as a conscious crime were the ones who created the space for such chaotic acts to occur, through their destabilisation of Ukraine and their tipping it over the edge from political unrest into all-out civil war.
The speed with which Western politicians and observers turned the MH17 crash site into a soapbox from which they might proclaim their own decency in contrast with Putin’s wickedness has been extraordinary. They didn’t wait for facts to emerge, or for studies to be carried out, or for the contents of the airplane’s blackbox recorder to be analysed; instead they rushed in, like political ghouls, to declare the crash site a murder scene and Putin the embodiment of everything the West finds foul.
As a consequence of this speedy, and some might say inhumane, elevation of the narrow needs of our political elites over any attempt to get to the truth of what occurred during this tragedy last Thursday, lots of questionable claims have been made about the terrible events. So hours after the jet came down, Western media outlets were claiming that the blackbox recorder may have been ‘spirited away to Moscow’ as part of some sinister ‘cover up’. We now know the blackbox recorder is in Donetsk, whose leader has said he will only hand the recorder over to the International Civil Aviation Organisation. One of the main claims made about the tragedy – that it was carried out with a ground-to-air missile supplied to the rebels by Russia – is currently entirely speculative. As a writer for the Spectator put it, it simply ‘has not been established’ that the missiles came from Russia; they might have been ‘looted from Ukrainian army stocks’. Most importantly, the idea that the rebels in the east of Ukraine are Putin’s puppets, doing his murderous bidding, is called into question by Russia’s failure to come to the rebels’ aid when they lost two of their cities to west Ukrainians earlier this month. As one report says, following the election of Petro Poroshenko as president of Ukraine it is possible that Putin is ‘tacitly switching [his] support to Kiev’ and ‘hanging the rebels out to dry’.
So a great deal is simply unknown right now, from what missile was used to who actually fired the missile to the broader question of how much Putin is supporting the rebels or shifting his political focus elsewhere. But such potential complexities have not been allowed to stand in the way of the great milking of MH17, the transformation of this messy incident into a simplistic morality tale starring ostentatiously outraged Western politicians on one side and evil Russian politicians holding still-smoking missile launchers on the other. The misinformation about the blackbox recorder coupled with the casual disregard for finding out the truth about other claims bring to mind the dodgy-dossier era of the early 2000s: just as that was a clear instance of politicians moulding the ‘evidence’ to make it fit a preordained moral script – that Saddam was evil and possessed WMD – so has the milking of the MH17 tragedy involved the squeezing of a terrible, still-unclear incident into an already-written script about Putin’s poisonous influence on world affairs and the need for the West to stand up to him.
So it was that the foreign minister of Sweden, Carl Bildt, wrote a piece titled ‘Putin’s credibility lies amid the wreckage of Flight MH17’. British PM David Cameron echoed this sentiment in a piece for the UK Sunday Times. Headlined ‘This is an outrage made in Moscow’, it cynically combined personal disgust (‘the images of the burnt-out Malaysian plane will never leave me’) with political tub-thumping (‘Europe and the West must fundamentally change our approach to Russia’). Cameron explicitly uses the MH17 tragedy to try to reassert the moral and political virtues of the West by juxtaposing them to the wicked, warped outlook of Putin’s Russia. His piece captures perfectly what motors modern-day Russia-bashing: a desire among Western leaders to make the West feel purposeful once more through posturing against a faraway leader whom they claim is a source of moral and political instability. Post-MH17, it is ‘time to make our power, influence and resources count’, said Cameron, to recognise that ‘our economies are strong and growing in strength’ and ‘Russia needs us [more than we need Russia]’.
What we have here is an attempt by a morally at-sea West to magic up the old black-and-white certainties of the Cold War era, through once again casting Russia as the villain of world affairs and the West as good, influential, resourceful, powerful and morally on-message. Is there not something a little grotesque in Cameron’s attempt to rebuild Western prestige on the still-burning debris of Flight MH17? Yes, a handful of eastern Ukranians might have searched the crash site for things they could sell, but Cameron is doing something worse: metaphorically scrabbling about in the crash site for evidence of Russian evil and, by extension, of British decency and fair play.
If Western leaders and observers were just exploiting the MH17 tragedy, that would be bad enough. But it gets worse. These same weepers over MH17 helped to make such a terrible incident a possibility in the first place. According to Cameron, the MH17 tragedy is a ‘direct result’ of Russia ‘destabilising a sovereign state [and] violating its territorial integrity’. In truth, our own leaders did a great deal to propel Ukraine from political unrest into civil war. They continually stirred up tensions in Ukraine in late 2013 and early 2014, through visiting the Occupy-style protest camps in Kiev, telling the inhabitants that theirs was a ‘just cause’, holding high-level talks with opposition leaders and even advising them on how and when to form a new government that might eventually replace President Viktor Yanukovich’s. All of this had the predictable impact of emboldening the protesters, isolating Yanukovich, and turning a pretty everyday political conflict into a bloody street battle in which Yanukovich was eventually ousted and replaced by leaders effectively handpicked by John Kerry and Angela Merkel. National divisions intensified, war ensued, and in war there are always terrible events, including catastrophic mistakes, like that which occurred on Thursday. It is simplistic in the extreme for Cameron to call the MH17 tragedy ‘an outrage made in Moscow’, considering it occurred as part of a war thoughtlessly provoked in London, Washington, Berlin.
In Ukraine over the past nine months, Western leaders effectively sleepwalked their way into a serious war, thinking little about the consequences their political interventions in Kiev would have on the integrity of the Ukrainian state. And now, as their destabilisation of a European state has terrible consequences not only for the inhabitants of that state but for others, too, they thoroughly rewrite recent history, washing their hands of responsibility and pinning the blame entirely on Putin. That is, they both pushed Ukraine into war and now try to make moral gains from some of the horrors of that war. International politics doesn’t get much lower than this.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.