The downing of a Malaysian Airlines jet has unleashed global outrage and renewed calls by the United States for strong measures against Russia, including tough economic sanctions because of Moscow’s support for Ukrainian separatists widely believed behind the attack.
It remains unclear whether the deaths of 298 people aboard the downed aircraft will be enough to prompt many European countries to overcome their reluctance for painful economic or diplomatic measures that would endanger their own economies and as a worst-case scenario trigger a new Cold War.
“Judging on past experience, it could be a major story in the news for a few months and then it will go away,” said Gideon Ewers, a former senior official of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, which represents more than 100,000 commercial pilots worldwide.
Since 1973, at least nine commercial airliners have been shot down or forced to land under fire over conflict zones, despite procedures such as restricted airspace to minimize the threat to civil aviation.
So far, no one has been prosecuted for those attacks, and no military action has ever been taken against the parties involved. Most responses have been limited to censures or negotiations in which governments responsible end up paying compensation to the victims.
They include Israel’s downing of a Libyan airliner in 1973; the shoot-down of a South Korean airliner by a Soviet fighter in 1982; and an attack on an Iranian Airbus by the USS Vincennes over the Persian Gulf in 1988, in which all 290 people on board died and which President Ronald Reagan described as a legitimate act of self-defense.
Nearly all of those cases were eventually settled through compensation payments.
Only the Soviets refused to pay up.
Although U.S. intelligence officials believe that pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine shot down the Malaysian airliner after mistakenly identifying it as a Ukrainian military transport, British Prime Minister David Cameron described the incident as “an outrage made in Moscow” and urged the world to turn outrage “into a moment of action.”
Ewers, now an aviation consultant, believes that’s unlikely based on past incidents. Many of those previous attacks produced international condemnation but no lasting impact on civil aviation safety procedures.
Jacqueline Hazelton, a counterterrorism lecturer at the U.S. Naval War College, said a measured response is not an altogether bad thing. Emotional, hair-trigger responses “can have costs for national interests in the form of hastily made choices or distraction from more important, longer-term problems and opportunities,” she told Stars and Stripes.
“Any given event may be tremendously painful and lead the news everywhere for a short time, but the degree of public interest does not correlate with the degree of national or international import,” she said.
Not everyone agreed there would be no lasting consequences.
Nick Witney, a former head of the European Defense Agency, said the Malaysian plane attack may have long-term effects on the way Vladimir Putin’s Russia is perceived in Europe and Asia.
“To the extent that there was any sympathy for the separatist cause, the rebels’ behavior would have seriously eroded it,” said Witney, now a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “What this also does is to show how irresponsible the Kremlin has been in its campaign to destabilize Ukraine. This may influence some European policy makers to abandon efforts to treat Russia as a strategic partner and view it more in terms of an adversary.”
The geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor suggested that accusations of Russian involvement in the crash may ultimately weaken Putin domestically if Russians perceive him as “a dangerous incompetent supporting a hopeless insurrection with wholly inappropriate weapons.” Nonetheless, Putin’s standing among Russians still appears high.
Even before the MH17 incident, both the United States and the European Union had imposed limited sanctions against Russia for the occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and for allegedly backing the separatists. Moscow denies supporting the rebellion.
The crash immediately sparked calls by the Obama administration for stern measures such as a ban on weapons exports to Russia and restrictions on its access to capital markets. The administration has said the attack should be a “wakeup call for the Europeans” for a tougher stand against Moscow.
Still, it is unlikely the Europeans will act soon.
Many European countries — which have strong trade ties with Moscow and import about a quarter of their energy from Russia — have so far been reluctant to go along with anything but largely symbolic sanctions.
On Tuesday, European Union foreign ministers again agreed to expand a list of Russian officials and businessmen targeted by asset freezes and visa bans. The ministers declined to adopt a proposed arms embargo against Moscow, thus allowing France to go ahead with delivery of the first of four 20,000-ton helicopter carriers to Russia.