In Robert Fisk’s book The Great War for Civilization, a memoir of his time as a war correspondent in the Middle East, Fisk describes his visit to the morgue of those killed on Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988. He imagines what it must have been like on board that plane: the sudden shake, the air being sucked out of their lungs, the free-fall to the Persian Gulf. According to certain experts, most likely they were knocked out by the rapid decompression and thankfully had no idea. But the passage has bothered me ever since; when I sit on a plane, I always think about the floor opening up under me.
Having flown over Ukraine multiple times myself just makes this business far more uncomfortable. For those who lost someone, there is doubtless a residue of pain and anger. For their governments, the desire for justice – or, lacking that, revenge – is palpable. But both will be hard to get. This is where geopolitics gets its bad reputation.
The international system is still mostly chaos
And the downing of MH17 is a prime example of it. An international flight full of civilians was given passage by European regulators to fly over a civil war. Someone on the ground there fired a missile, thinking the plane was an enemy. (It’s still too early to tell who shot it down, but the incentive lies with the Russian-back rebellion, who could have mistaken it for a Ukraine troop transport coming from the west).
Were this to have happened in, say, France, Canada, or Germany, the perpetrators would be hunted down by efficient police forces who would have the right to resort to violence if they felt the need. Nobody anywhere would try to stop them; anyone who helped the missile crew would be labeled a criminal as well and brought to justice one way or another.
That’s because the nation-state system has mostly solved the problem of law and order within nation-states. What it has totally failed to do is solve it between states. A crime was clearly committed here, but getting the criminals will prove to be difficult, if not impossible.
Problem number 1: the main victims are too small to do anything about it
The main victims in this case are Malaysia, owner of the airlines, and the Netherlands, where the flight originated. Neither of them could, even if they wanted, deploy forces, police or otherwise, to Ukraine to find the missile crew. The Netherlands is too small a country that has, under America’s protective aegis, slowly reduced its military footprint to the point where it can only really play a supporting role in NATO-run wars.
Malaysia has almost 30 million people and a larger military, but lacks the heavy hardware necessary to deploy forces abroad.
And even if they both could send troops to Ukraine to try to bring about some justice, they’d still have to face down a nation-state that will brook no challenger in the region.
Problem number 2: Russia and its nukes
In the 19th century, such a mass murder of a nation-state’s civilians would easily have sparked a war. That war could have escalated into some murderous days, with many dead on both sides, but would not have ended the world. Should anyone try to bring the missile crew to justice without Russia’s consent, they could easily do just that.
Up until now, Russia has pursued a strategy of a low boil in eastern Ukraine – not enough to bring the civil war to the levels of Syria, where international attention might grow to the point where Ukraine’s government might finally get access to the Western kit it seeks. It’s been a delicate balancing act full of peril; the destruction of MH17 is proof enough that Russia does not control all that goes on there.
Problem number 3: the EU still needs Russian gas and oil
Case in point is Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the relationship a “partnership” because she’s got little choice. Germany cannot grow without Russian energy, and Merkel cannot afford to let Germany’s economy slip or else she risks losing her job to a justifiably angry electorate. Tragedy or not, Russian fault or not, Germany’s hands are tied. Germans may feel quite bad, but they will not rally the EU to do much.
Meanwhile, both Britain and France are both stuck in wobbly emergences from the Great Recession. They don’t have the deep wells of power that once let them invade Russia in 1919 during the Russian Civil War.
Problem number 4: the United States is busy retrenching
After 13 years of war in Afghanistan, 8 years in Iraq, and over a trillion dollars spent, the U.S. has no interest in solving civil wars for anyone. To lose Ukraine to Russia will not break U.S. power worldwide, and so the urgency to keep it moving towards the West isn’t nearly as strong in Washington as it is in Kiev. The U.S. under Barack Obama has little desire to poke the Russian bear. That’ll be the next president’s problem.
So what can be done? Not much, besides, maybe, getting the missile crew to a local police force
Whoever fired that missile could be captured in the coming days or weeks and handed over to international prosecutors. That seems unlikely; they were probably following orders, and during a trial they’d probably share who gave them said orders. None of the elite in Moscow or Kiev would want that.
The long-term solution involves evolving past the nation-state system, but until then…
…soldiers, generals, prime ministers and presidents will do what they’ve always done: get away with murder.