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​The downing of Flight MH17: A plea for objectivity

Nile Bowie
Nile Bowie is an independent writer and current affairs commentator based in Singapore. Originally from New York City, he has lived in the Asia-Pacific region for nearly a decade and was previously a columnist with the Malaysian Reserve newspaper, in addition to working actively in non-governmental organisations and creative industries. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.
​The downing of Flight MH17: A plea for objectivity
The appalling attack on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 marks the most serious escalation of violence in the Ukrainian conflict since authorities in Kiev launched a military operation in the country’s eastern regions earlier this year.

It is difficult to fathom how the situation in Ukraine has transformed from protests over corruption and an economic associate agreement into a major international conflict, and has taken hundreds of lives and led to the worst diplomatic crisis between Moscow and Washington in modern times.

The situation in Ukraine has directly touched the lives of victims and their families from various parts of the world, who never could have imagined that a contentious domestic crisis in a country thousands of miles away from their homelands could so profoundly impact them.

The view from Kuala Lumpur is a distressing one, as the nation struggles to cope with the shock and psychological trauma of yet another massive tragedy in the wake of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370’s unsolved disappearance just over four months ago.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was personally affected by the disaster, as reports confirmed that his step-grandmother was onboard the ill-fated plane. The overwhelming concern of Malaysians is to secure that the remains of passengers are quickly returned to the country for a proper burial.

As the victims mourn their loved ones, their tragic dilemma has become garishly politicized by sensationalist media coverage and political figures who have leapt to conclusions in the absence of any authoritative evidence, and before any international investigation has been carried out.

It is not surprising that this woeful disaster has quickly become valuable political currency considering the deep polarization in international opinion over the conflict in Ukraine. Nonetheless, certain voices in western capitals have irresponsibly encouraged perceptions that the Russian President is personally responsible for this incident.

The point remains that until an objective international investigation can be undertaken, any figure attempting to assign responsibility for this heinous crime onto one side or the other is only expressing speculation, not facts.

If one considers how the conflict in Ukraine has been framed by most western media publications up until this point, it comes as no surprise that such a vitriolic, one-sided perspective has been generated around the MH17 incident.

A piece of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is pictured in a field near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014. (AFP Photo / Bulent Kilic)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who leads a government staffed by figures that toppled the previous democratically elected regime in February, chose to abandon negotiations and a mediated ceasefire in late June to press ahead with a military campaign in Ukraine’s eastern regions.

In the course of their punitive operation, the Ukrainian military has blockaded and cut electricity supplies to populated cities while shelling and launching rockets into residential areas, resulting in at least 250 civilian deaths since June, according to the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission.

Even while half a million Ukrainians have become refugees according to UN estimates, the transgressions of Poroshenko’s government and the Ukrainian military have largely been uncritically reported. Western capitals and their media outlets instead reflexively accuse Moscow of fuelling tensions in the country, despite the Russian authorities taking a clearly cautious trajectory in favor of a negotiated solution.

Moscow has consistently called for an unconditional and mutually agreeable ceasefire, and a cessation of hostilities in eastern Ukraine, even offering to grant Ukraine border guards access to Russian territory to control border crossings at several checkpoints to prevent the supply of arms once a lasting ceasefire can be established.

In late June, Russia's parliament canceled a resolution authorizing the use of Russian forces in Ukraine to de-escalate tension, though western countries have only responded with calls for more aggressive sanctions against Moscow, which is accused of propping up Ukraine’s rebels in the east.

The recent destruction of the Malaysian airliner has pushed the information war into even more aggressive territory, as attempts are made by various media outlets to discredit Russian news outlets by characterizing their coverage of the disaster as focusing on conspiratorial counterclaims.

In contrast to claims made by Ukraine government officials, which are widely broadcast across English-speaking media, statements made by the Russian side are either denigrated or not reported on. There are several key facts that Russia has brought to light that cannot be ignored.

Although the Ukrainian government claimed that it did not have missile launchers in range of the passing Malaysian plane, the Russian Defense Ministry claims that it detected radiation from a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile battery that was operational at the time the aircraft was shot down.

The Defense Ministry also claimed that Ukraine’s armed forces stationed several surface-to-air missile systems in the Donetsk region where the Malaysian passenger plane crashed, which is highly unusual considering that rebel groups in eastern Ukraine do not possess aircrafts.

A single shoe is seen on July 19, 2014 at the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 two days after it crashed in a sunflower field near the village of Rassipnoe, in rebel-held eastern Ukraine. (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

There are also questions as to why the Malaysian airliner was directed to fly over an area where intense exchanges of fire have recently been taking place. According the civil aviation traffic data available, MH17 flight took a route 300 miles to the north of the trajectories that other Malaysian Airlines flights had used in previous days that led it to fly over the troubled Donetsk region, into the heart of rebel-held territory.

It should be acknowledged that several western media outlets have also publicized an unverified recorded conversation posted online by the Ukrainian secret service which supports the theory that rebel groups accidently shot down the Malaysian jetliner thinking it was a Ukrainian military cargo plane.

According to an expert sound and voice analyst who studied the recorded conversation, the audio file contained indications that suggested the dialog was not authentic, but was assembled from various other audio fragments. This recording should be subjected to wider scrutiny to determine whether other audio experts reach the same conclusions.

The BCC has reported that the Ukrainian secret service has taken the unusual move of confiscating the recording between air traffic controller and the doomed aircraft. Such information would be needed to establish culpability and identify whether Ukrainian air traffic control directed the aircraft into the zone where it was shot down.

Rebel forces fighting in eastern Ukraine have succeed in shooting down military aircraft in the days preceding the MH17 disaster, though most analysts agree that the rebels would not have the capacity to strike a civilian passenger aircraft traveling at normal cruising altitude using the man-portable air defense systems that they are known to possess.

The site of the crash of the Il-76 Ukrainian army transport plane in Luhansk June 14, 2014. (Reuters / Shamil Zhumatov)

As of yet, there is no conclusive evidence that has surfaced to prove that rebels possess the kind of surface-to-air missile systems needed to take down a commercial airliner, and there is also nothing to substantiate the claim that Russia has supplied this technology to rebel fighters or assisted them in operating it.

When an international investigation panel is formed, it must demand that Ukrainian authorities release recordings between air traffic control and the Malaysian plane, in addition to the raw military radar data and tracking information needed to ascertain the movements of Ukrainian warplanes and the activity of any surface-to-air missile systems that the country possesses.

For any international investigation to succeed, all possibilities should be scrutinized and considered, including the theory that rebels brought down the aircraft. Western media outlets have worked tirelessly to create the perception that Russia governs the conduct of rebel groups in eastern Ukraine. Any objective analysis of the conflict up until now suggests that Moscow only has influence among these groups; it does not control them. Militia groups fighting in eastern Ukraine would be damaging their own cause if they fail to cooperate with the investigators.

While the party responsible for the crime has not yet been established, the incident has proven most opportune for those figures that have been calling for stinging sanctions on Russia, and this tragedy is already being exploited to put maximum political pressure on Moscow.

Malaysia and the Netherlands, the countries that bore the brunt of this terrible incident, have chosen not to antagonize and assign blame. When asked by a report if he agreed with President Obama’s assessment that Moscow should be held responsible, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, said, “We need verification on that.” Malaysian officials have also stated that Russia has done its level best to ensure access to the crash site.

More evidence is expected to surface in the coming days that will provide a clearer picture into the vicious killing of the 298 people onboard MH17. This incident should be an impetus for all sides to implement a negotiated ceasefire that would put an end to this horrible fratricidal conflict, but in all likelihood, this incident will only protract Ukraine’s war.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.