Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Disaster postdates Donetsk

The Ukrainian crisis is intensifying in the brouhaha over the Malaysian airliner disaster that curiously occurred in Donetsk, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Kremlin and its supposed protégé, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), always provoke wildly contrasting reactions in the international media. Moscow officially denies it has any direct control over the DNR, or pro-Russian militias and activists in eastern Ukraine, much to the West’s consternation.

Nevertheless, the downing of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in the Donetsk region has focussed attention once again on the conflict in Ukraine, and Russia’s role in what is unfolding. In the West, the media appears tao dismiss the DNR with derision and contempt. The authorities, with the tacit connivance of the Kremlin, seem to have been judged guilty even before the black boxes from the Malaysian airliner that crashed in eastern Ukraine were found. Black boxes have, indeed, been found and were delivered to international aviation authorities by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Be that as it may, as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, it was not yet absolutely clear what secret revelations the black boxes held. There are precedents to the current tragedy. Roll back to the 2010 mystery when a Polish aircraft with the country’s president and other dignitaries aboard plunged mysteriously in the vicinity of Katyn, Russia. A diplomatic row understandably ensued.

The burning ambition of the DNR never seems to wane, even though Russia denies orchestrating the unrest in eastern Ukraine. Kiev appears to be certain that the Kremlin had a hand in this tragic air crash that claimed the lives of almost 300 people. Moreover, Ukraine’s security service on Sunday released online what it claims are intercepted phone calls that prove that the authorities in Donetsk were behind the downing of the Malaysian airliner.

Fast forward 1994, and project a scenario in an entirely different continent, Africa. The presidential plane with Juvenal Habyarimana, then president of Rwanda, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, then president of neighbouring Burundi, aboard was shot down near Kigali International Airport and crashed in the vicinity of the presidential palace, instantly instigating a bloody and brutish civil war that ultimately led to the mass murder of an estimated 900,000 people. Let us hope that the Donetsk tragedy does not lead to an analogous bloodbath.

The DNR authorities have denied wrongdoing. And are convinced that the international investigating team is biased against them. Come what may, they vowed that they would fight to the bitter end.

There is a tendency to indulge in a certain schadenfreude as far as Ukraine is concerned. The country is already in political disarray. Ukraine is facing its most serious political crisis since independence from the defunct Soviet Union in August 1991. Everyone has overreacted to the Ukrainian crisis with ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers sympathetic to the Kremlin and hoping to join the Russian Federation distrusting the Ukrainian government in Kiev.

At stake is more than just the fate of the 20 per cent ethnic Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians. The Kremlin clinched Crimea in March earlier this year after a referendum in which Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to join Russia, and now the DNR and other pro-Russian eastern Ukrainian regions want to follow suit. The downing of the Malaysian airliner could not have come at a worse time. Kiev’s intransigent and heavy-handed approach to the crisis doesn’t help either.

It is against this grim backdrop that a delegation from the international monitoring body the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was promptly dispatched to the troubled Donetsk region. DNR, like most other parts of Ukraine suffers so sorely from the absence of consensus in the mainstream political leadership. They headed for the Shakhtarsky region of the crash site of the tragic MH17 Boeing 777 where 298 passengers and crew were killed when the plane plunged into the war-torn zone in eastern Ukraine last Thursday.

According to the Western media, the delegation was not given full access to the site where the Malaysian airliner was downed and many news networks stressed that the team was greeted with hostility by the authorities in the DNR and were harassed by pro-Russian militias.

Some Western news networks even suggested that they know the person behind the tragic downing of the Malaysian airliner. They claim that he is right-hand man of rebel leader Igor Strelkov. If so, the tragedy was no unfortunate coincidence, but premeditated mass murder. However, there is not sufficient independent evidence yet to prove guilt.

Russian President Vladimir Putin urged pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine to cooperate with the international investigators. Putin, nevertheless, insisted that an international investigation must not leap to conclusions. The Kremlin denies involvement and has in turn pointed an accusing finger at Kiev’s military. The whole sordid affair is still a mystery.

Authorities in DNR believe that the incident is being used as a cover to probe into the security apparatus of the self-declared independent regions of eastern Ukraine. Indeed, some Western media networks have hinted that Igor Bezler, a field commander for the separatists in Gorlovka in eastern Ukraine, going by the nom de guerre “Bes”, which means “devil” or “demon” in Russian, is implicated in the Malaysian airliner tragedy.

Kiev concurs. The Ukrainian authorities assert that Bezler’s voice is on the recordings of the incriminating telephone conversation.

Moscow maintains that the West has no business meddling in Ukrainian domestic affairs. Yet the West turns a deaf ear to its protestations. US Secretary of State John Kerry recently told CNN the missile system used to shoot down the Malaysian airliner was handed to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine by Moscow. “It’s pretty clear that this is a system that was transferred from Russia in the hands of separatists,” Kerry said.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers agrees. “Pro-Russian militants taking victims’ bodies from responders at gunpoint. Utter void of human decency,” Powers was quoted as saying.

More to the point, the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev toe the Western line. “The Russian Federation is continuing to supply the separatists with heavy weaponry and other arms,” announced Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s Security Council. Yet, the authority of the Ukrainian government in Ukraine is being steadily eroded by DNR and other pro-Russian regions.

The situation desperately needs a settling of sorts. The crisis in eastern Ukraine is vaguely reminiscent of Russia’s showdown with Georgia in August 2008. The West strongly condemned Russia for its actions, but in practice was impotent to stop Russia wrenching Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.

The headlines are dominated by the tragic incident of the downed Malaysian airliner. The pro-Russians in eastern Ukraine would be wise to slow down any push to joining the Russian Federation at this point. Putin has cautioned them to do just that. Striving for autonomy is one thing. Merging with Russia is quite another.

De jure independence for DNR and other such eastern Ukrainian enclaves will remain something of an impossible dream as investigations into the downing of the Malaysian airliner are underway.

The Kremlin senses where the wind is blowing. What is crucial, whatever Moscow’s concerns are, is that the Malaysian airliner tragedy must never be turned into a pretext by either the West or the Kremlin — or Kiev for that matter — to score political points at the expense of the lost lives of innocent passengers and crew.

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