Commentary

The Downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 and the New Cold War with Russia

The Downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 and the New Cold War with Russia

On 17 July 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was brought down over eastern Ukraine, a few minutes before it would have crossed into Russian airspace on its journey from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The incident, killing all on board, occurred six months after Ukrainian ultra-nationalists had seized power in Kiev with Western support, triggering the secession of Crimea and a Russian-Ukrainian insurgency in the Donbass (Donetsk and Lugansk provinces).

In my forthcoming book Flight MH17, Ukraine and the New Cold War. Prism of Disaster (Manchester University Press, June), which will also come out in a German translation with PapyRossa in Cologne and a Portuguese one with Fino Traço publishers in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, I challenge the Western narrative on what happened that day.

Recent events, such as the alleged gas incident in Douma (Syria), the assault of father and daughter Skripal in Salisbury, as well as the accusations of systematic doping of Russian athletes, confirm one of the book’s basic conclusions: Moscow is being accused of misdeeds of all kinds and subjected to sanctions before any serious investigation has occurred to establish its culpability.

In the book I analyse the MH17 catastrophe as a prism that refracts the broader historical context in which it occurred. Its different strands include the capsizing of the European and world balance of power after the collapse of the USSR; the resurrection by the Putin leadership in Moscow of a Russian state and economy strong enough to resist Western direction; the Gazprom-EU energy connection; the civil war in Ukraine that followed the seizure of power of February 2014, and the attempt to turn Russia into an enemy again, legitimising NATO and EU forward pressure and the new Cold War.

There is no way that the disaster can be understood as an isolated incident, a matter of identifying the immediate causes of the crash, or who gave the order to shoot it down if it was not an accident. The analysis must cast its net much wider, if only because many conclusive details are either missing or shrouded by the fog of the propaganda war that broke out immediately afterwards. Certainly an investigation of the catastrophe cannot remain confined to the forensics or rely on phone taps provided by the intelligence service of a regime in Kiev which, by any standard, should be considered a potential perpetrator.

The first, most comprehensive frame in which to understand the downing of MH17  is the challenge posed to Western global governance by a tentative bloc of large contender states led by China and Russia. Russia is at the heart of a Eurasian alternative to the neoliberal EU, whilst China is the obvious centre of the BRICS  countries (the others being Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa). The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, established in 2001, is another of the bloc’s supporting structures. In the days immediately preceding the downing, the BRICS heads of state, hosted by the Brazilian president,Dilma Rousseff (since removed by a soft coup staged in May 2016), signed the statute establishing a New Development Bank as a direct challenge to the US and Western-dominated World Bank and IMF. Still in Brazil before flying back to Moscow on the 17th, Russian president Vladimir Putin on the fringes of the football world cup finals also agreed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to pursue a comprehensive Land for Gas deal. Its tentative provisions included normalising the status of Crimea in exchange for a massive economic rehabilitation plan and a gas price rebate for Ukraine.

Russia’s energy resources were key to this deal and, more broadly, to forging a symbiosis with the EU, in particular with Germany and Italy. After the Nordstream pipeline across the Baltic, agreed in 2005 and linking Russia and Germany directly, a South Stream counterpart across the Black Sea was contracted with ENI of Italy in 2007, to be extended through a grid into southern Europe as far as Austria, with German companies involved too. This sort of German-Russian rapprochement goes back to the days of Bismarck and around the turn of the 20th century gave rise to the notion that Anglo-America, the heartland of liberal capitalism and the potentially excluded party from such a rapprochement, should consider its prevention the priority of its European diplomacy. For, by the sheer size of the Eurasian land mass (for which the term ‘heartland’ was coined originally), not to mention the formidable combination that European industry and Russian resources could constitute, unity among the Eurasian states had long appeared threatening to the supremacy of the Anglophone West.

Energy diplomacy likely explains the sanctions the US imposed on Russia following the coup in Kiev, and it may explain why Washington stepped up the level of punitive measures so drastically on 16 July, one day before MH17 was brought down, while the BRICS leaders were still in Brazil and Putin and Merkel agreed to work on a solution to the crisis. However, these sanctions were still to be underwritten by an EU summit and expectations were that this was not going to be smooth sailing, because several EU states balked at the prospect of a further disruption of their gas supply, agricultural exports and other economic links with Russia. These hesitations were only overcome after the catastrophe occurred the next day. The Land for Gas negotiations, too, were immediately terminated. South Stream, already being opposed for violations of EU competition rules, was finally abandoned on 1 December 2014. It was replaced by a tentative agreement with Turkey on an alternative route, but this too was disrupted by the shooting down of a Russian jet over Syria by an F-16 from the NATO air base at Inçirlik in southern Turkey in November 2015. It was only revived after the failed coup against the Erdoğan government in July 2016. Today a Nord Stream 2 pipeline is in the works, again fiercely contested by Washington.

The book situates these events in the context of a struggle of world-historical proportions between two conflicting social orders: the neoliberal capitalism of the West, locked in a crisis caused by speculative finance, yet still hostage to it; versus a state-directed, oligarchic capitalism, and with Europe in between. This struggle is being fought out in Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’, in the Middle East, in the South China Sea, and elsewhere. The downing of one Malaysian Airlines Boeing and the disappearance of another a few months before, both occurred on these front lines.

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