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Jul 21, 2014

Rundle: Cold Warriors rattling kalashnikovs can't give MH17 meaning

MH17 was almost certainly not shot down by the Russian military in a deliberate act of war against any nation with a citizen on board. But tell that to the Right.

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You gotta love old Cold War hands. What an addition they are to trying to parse events such as the MH17 crash, to sort out fact from fiction. Though there seems little doubt that MH17 was shot down with a BUK missile, fired by Russian-backed separatists — though, as usual, the media of the world is accepting a version of events long before it has been thoroughly checked out — there remains serious doubt as to whether they thought they were shooting down a passenger jet. The strong possibility is that they believed it was an Antonov; the idea that it was a deliberate hit, or that Russian commanders were explicitly involved, suggests a strategy of outrage entirely out of character of the conflict in question.

But that hasn’t stopped the Cold Warriors. Paul Dibb was early out of the gate in The Australian today, assuring us that this was all an example of Putin’s KGB-trained strategy of “deception”. Thank you, comrade. Natasha, pass the shoe phone. All around the world, the same briefing books are being dusted off. While the bodies still lie on the blasted verst, the disaster is being used to conscript the West against Russia once more. The intent is to resume the expansion of NATO, the means, to confer on the act a meaning it lacks, that of the titanic political struggle between capitalism and communism in the 20th century.

To do this, it is essential to construct the destruction of MH17 as an act of terror aimed at the West, rather than as civilian casualty in a war zone. The key culpability lies with Malaysia Airlines, which, like a number of airlines, decided to fly that corridor even though the weaponry of the separatists and their support from Russia was well known. Those of us flying the Europe-Australia long haul noticed some very cheap seats hanging round these past months. Are they made possible by fuel savings such airlines make by not detouring?

To fly over, or, on a ship, pass through a war zone is an act that clearly puts the onus on the vessel and those running it — unless the country in question is claiming not to be at war, in which case the onus is on that country’s government to guarantee safe passage. But when the sovereignty itself is challenged from within, that is surely a dead letter. The Russian separatists claim that the elected Ukrainian government was deposed by a US/EU-backed coup, and that the current government has no legitimacy. Their case is arguable, their willingness to use force unquestioned, and their suspicion of overflights in a drone/surveillance world well-founded. To decide that the dead of MH17 are victims of terror is to decide the legitimacy of the war they got tangled up in. They were more like tourists killed in a hotel during a civil war than victims of a suicide hijacking or a targeted bombing, which is what the NATO/EU push would like to construct them as.

They are aided in this pursuit by the contemporary need to give such deaths meaning, a recent development. Some goose in Fairfax suggested that this was “part of a new and dangerous” world, one of those phrases that tired centrist commentators should set up as shift-F3 on their keyboards. New and dangerous? Jaysus, in the 1970s air crashes and hijackings were such regular events that they were all but scheduled on the click-clack boards at the airport. Flying has never been safer or more regular, just as everything has got safer and more regular — which is one reason why accidental death now has such ceremony built up around it. In the ’70s there wasn’t time to put out flowers and teddy bears in the arrivals lounge because by the time you got there, the August 29th movement had already hijacked something else, and another jumbo had ploughed into the runway.

The meaning we now attach to such deaths, the vastly expanded news-space given to the individual lives of the deceased — all that demands a wider narrative to give sense to their passing. So the dead pass from the circle of family and friends and into the hands of the nation. From there, it’s all but essential that the nation have an adversary. This has its domestic political purposes, both here — those around Abbott, such as the Parrot and Gerard Henderson are using the event to define him as a “strong” leader, after he was shown to be weak, inept and cowardly during the carbon tax repeal — and especially abroad, where the US Right are using it to target Obama as a weak leader. They offer no suggestions as to what he should do in response to Russia’s backing of separatists in Ukraine, because there is none — military action is out of the question, unless John McCain goes there personally (having crashed four US jets himself in his failed career as a pilot), and the EU will not support tough sanctions because European nations’ economies are so bound up with Russia’s that they would simply be damning themselves.

Even if it turns out that MH17 was deliberately shot down through some addled strategic idea of an on-the-ground separatist commander, it seems impossible to believe that the orders would have come from Russian military, still less anyone higher up the chain. But that seems to be the implicit charge by the West — that it is an act of war by Russia against any nation who had a citizen on board that plane. In the last instance, it can only be regarded as an international act if one denies Ukraine’s sovereignty — support of which is surely the point. If one respects Ukraine’s sovereignty, then it remains a criminal act of ghastly proportions, by a small conspiracy of murderers. That is the dilemma the pro-NATO expansion crowd faces at the moment. The goose flies west, but not over Kiev.

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