Don’t Blame Putin for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17

by Benjamin Studebaker

On July 17, 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine by a Russian-built SA-11 surface to air missile. The tragedy killed 298 people, the majority of whom were Dutch, as well as a handful of AIDS researchers. In the wake of this terribly unfortunate incident, many in the west are blaming Russia for having supplied the pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels with the sophisticated weaponry necessary to carry out the deed.  In so doing, however, they are missing the forest for the trees, choosing the simple, cathartic narrative of Russian villainy over the reality.

Whenever something like this happens, we want to know why. At this point we’ve determined that it was almost certainly pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels. US intelligence officials clear the Russian government of direct involvement. However, they claim that Russia “created the conditions” that led to the shooting. This is true in the very simple sense that yes, the missile that felled the plane was made in Russia and was put in the hands of the rebels by Russia, and we could just stop there and ask no further questions.

But let’s probe deeper. There are two “why” questions that are worth asking, a small one and a big one:

  1. The Small Why: Why did the Ukrainian rebels shoot down a peaceful passenger plane?
  2. The Big Why: Why do conditions exist in which there are Ukrainian rebels in the first place?

Let’s take each in turn.

The Small “Why”

Typically, when we’re trying to figure out why someone has done something, we start by asking what the expected benefit is. What did the rebels get out of shooting down the plane, or think they were going to get? The trouble here is that there are no satisfying replies to this question, no answers that make the deliberate targeting of a peaceful passenger plane make any sense. The consequences of such an action were plain and easy to see, even beforehand. It is clear to military groups that when they shoot down passenger airliners, they will kill people from a wide variety of countries, and that these countries will be embittered and aggrieved by those deaths. A full 17 countries account for the array of nationalities on board MH17. When you’re a rebel faction, you do not want to be the target of international hatred or resentment. You want foreign allies and you want states that could be your foe (like the United States) to decide to take no action against you. Shooting down passenger airliners is the quickest way to draw the attention of potential foes–it invites trouble.

The shooting must have been a mistake. There are two ways in which it could have happened in error:

  1. Rebel commanders gave the order to shoot down the plane while under the false impression that it was a military target.
  2. Rogue rebels targeted the plane without orders due to extreme anti-western sentiment brought on by the west’s support for the pro-EU government in Kiev.

There’s an investigation pending, but in the meantime, Newsweek is claiming it has evidence for the former. Given that this was a mistake rather than a deliberate act, we should not expect other passenger planes to be in danger. The United States and Europe should consequently lift their bans on flying to Tel Aviv–just as the Ukrainian rebels are unlikely to deliberately target civilian planes, Hamas and other Palestinian groups surely recognize that attacking an international flight would be a public relations disaster for their cause.

The Big “Why”

So we’ve resolved why the rebels shot the plane down, but why do conditions exist such that there are rebels in the first place? The proximate answer is that the Russians are arming the rebels–the rebels would not be able to stand up against the Ukrainian military without Russian support. But why are the Russians backing the rebels?

The Russians are backing the rebels because the Russians despise the new Ukrainian government and want to destabilize it or replace it. Why do the Russians want that? Because unlike the previous Ukrainian government, the new Ukrainian government is pro-western. It seeks closer ties to the EU and NATO. Why do those ties threaten Russia? The original purpose of NATO was to form an alliance to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Europe. When the Cold War ended, this alliance did not fold up. Instead, it continued expanding Eastward, closer to Russia:

The Russians see NATO’s Eastward expansion as indicative that the NATO member states are still seeking to isolate, contain, and weaken Russia. For decades, the Soviet Union maintained its security against the west through the Warsaw Pact, which kept many Eastern European states between West Germany and Moscow, providing the Soviets with a buffer zone against NATO. Now that these countries are not merely exiting Russia’s sphere of influence but entering NATO’s, Russia is both losing its buffer and conceding further ground to NATO.

Russia was made more worried by the US missile defense batteries that were installed in Poland and other Eastern European countries by the Bush administration. Bush claimed that the missile defense system was for the purpose of deterring Iranian aggression, but Putin never believed this explanation:


Relations were further worsened by Bush’s explicit claim in 2008 that he wanted to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. The Russians acted swiftly to dispel this rhetoric, punishing Georgia for its NATO ambitions in the 2008 South Ossetia War.

In international relations theory, this is called the “security dilemma”. States take actions to protect themselves and their allies that other states see as threatening. These latter states respond by taking steps to protect themselves and their allies, which the former states find threatening, and so on in a vicious circle. What each side does defensively is interpreted by the other as aggression. The Russians see EU and NATO expansion as aggressive behavior, and the west sees Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and Georgia as aggressive.

Indeed, the Russians believe that the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine earlier this year received western support and organization (this may well be true–American professor John Mearsheimer claimed as much in the New York Times, and it did not issue a retraction or correction).

So the full story looks something like this:

  1. The plane was shot down because Ukrainian rebels made a mistake.
  2. The rebels were there and able to make the mistake because Russia has armed them.
  3. Russia has armed the rebels because it is afraid of a pro-western Ukrainian government.
  4. Russia is afraid of a pro-western Ukrainian government because such a government will likely join NATO.
  5. Russia fears NATO because it is a military alliance whose purpose Russia believes is to contain and weaken Russia.
  6. Russia believes this because NATO was founded for this purpose and has continually been expanded into territory that used to be part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
  7. Russia’s fears cannot be assuaged because no matter what western states claim, Russia cannot be certain about their future intentions.
  8. Russia cannot be certain about the west’s future intentions because there is no higher authority than states–if the west changes policy tomorrow, Russia has no external arbiter to which it can appeal (this we call “International Anarchy”).

So ultimately, why did flight MH17 get shot down? Because in the context of international anarchy, NATO’s Eastward expansion has inevitably and unavoidably triggered security competition between Russia and the west, where both sides believe themselves to be acting defensively and the other to be acting aggressively. There’s no obvious answer to the security dilemma (hence the name “dilemma”). If either side backs down to show that it is not being aggressive, it has to worry that this display of weakness will trigger genuine aggression from the other side. This is a particularly thorny difficulty for Russia, as it is far weaker than NATO and controls an inferior amount of wealth (measured in GDP):

Balance of Power NATO Russia

If Russia given an inch, it knows that NATO has the economic and military power to take a yard. Therefore if there is going to be a climb down to defuse the violence in Ukraine, it will have to come from NATO and the EU, both of which would need to acknowledge Russia’s security concerns and publicly promise never to admit Ukraine. They might even consider signing a treaty with Russia to that effect.

But perhaps the west doesn’t want to defuse the violence in Ukraine at the cost of its EU and NATO ambitions. Perhaps it would rather endure Russian resistance to those moves. That’s a choice the west can make, but if it makes that choice, it need to recognize that the Russians will resist as much as they can for as long as they can and that this will get people killed. Nor is the west entitled to expect anything else, for it is every bit as much a party to the security competition in the region as Russia is.

Ultimately, flight MH17 was shot out of the sky because NATO and Russia are really scared of each other. That’s not Putin’s fault or Obama’s fault or Merkel’s fault. It’s just the way the security dilemma plays out. If anyone is at fault, it’s the diplomats who decided during the 1990’s that NATO expansion was a good idea in the first place, and they could hardly have anticipated that their decision would get a few hundred people killed in 2014. But it did, and here we are.