One Crisis at a Time

Plane crash

One Crisis at a Time
| published July 17, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Foreign policy tensions and international crises are the stuff that U.S. Presidents are—in theory—prepared to face every day. What Presidents hope for is that such crises can be managed, one flare-up at a time.

But the last 48 hours have made for troubling hours at the White House, with little reason to suspect that any one of several flashpoints can be easily diffused. Even as military pressures continue to ramp-up in Iraq, with the ongoing threat of the radical militant group ISIS creating the very real possibility of a permanently fragmented Iraq (not to mention a threat to the intergrity of Iraq’s border with Jordan and the stability of Iraq’s neighbor to the south, Saudi Arabia), other fires are raging around the Middle East and Europe.

Tensions in the Ukraine, and a deadly exchange along the troubled border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, have moved to the forefront of the news this week—making for multiple extreme challenges at the White House.

Today, Israeli troops and tanks were on the move—crossing the border between Israel and Gaza. Several cease fire plans and truce proposals have failed over the last week, and the region appears to be headed toward an all-out ground war. The exchange of rockets between Hamas militants and the Israeli military have left hundreds dead—almost all of the deaths on the Gaza side of the conflict. Many hundreds more have been injured, and thousands of Palestinians are on the move—fleeing the violence.

The escalation along the narrow frontier between Israel and Gaza has drawn the world’s attention, but today—simultaneous to the possibility of all-out war between Hamas militants and Israel—a shocking sequence of events unfolded near the border of the Ukraine and Russia. Civil war in the Ukraine is now spilling over into international outrage after a Malaysian airliner—in this case a Boeing 777—was apparently shot down as it travelled east across Europe toward Kuala Lumpur. The shooting-down of the plane may catapult the Ukrainian tensions into a full-blown international crisis over the next few days and weeks.

Recently, the United States and its allies have upped the ante on sanctions (even as those sanctions appear to be in the early stages of also hurting several major European and American companies, among them Exxon-Mobil and Daimler AG). U.S. President Barack Obama is determined to intensify economic sanctions against Russia, and especially those market measures which might put the squeeze on billionaire cronies of Vladimir Putin. This week the U.S. Treasury Department announced a new, intense set of sanctions meant to target Rosneft, one of Russia’s biggest oil companies. Sanctions were also imposed on OAO Novatek and OAO Gazprombank. Novatek is a huge natural gas and oil producer; Gazprombank is one of Russia’s biggest lenders.

U.S. military analysts and U.S. State Department officials have said that they have irrefutable evidence that the Russian military is sending arms and equipment to the pro-Russian separatists. Putin and his spokesmen have denied any such direct involvement, and Russia has attempted to dismiss the sanctions as largely meaningless.

Hours ago a Malaysian jet crashed in eastern Ukraine, the victim—possibly—of anti-aircraft fire from the ground.

The Ukrainian government has been quick to blame the pro-Russian separatists now in control of much of the territory east of the Dnieper River, and Ukrainian officials released video evidence and transcripts of conversations between the separatists and their Russian handlers back east—digital data which seems, on the face of it, to confirm that the civilian airliner was shot down deliberately. Preliminary but limited information provided by the U.S. State Department and U.S. intelligence sources seem to confirm that the plane was fired upon by a ground-launched missile system. Pro-Russian rebels may have at first bragged about being responsible for the downed plane, but have since denied that they were responsible for its destruction.

According to Malaysian Airlines there were 295 passengers on board the Boeing 777. Based on reports from the first responders on the ground in the Ukraine, all passengers are presumed to be dead. Individual video recordings, made by civilians in areas near the crash site, show a massive fireball and plume of smoke rising from the crash site.

The incident only stokes concerns about how much Russia is aiding and abetting the cause of the rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine, and the crash may raise the stake even higher for the package of sanctions now being imposed. The weapon apparently used to down the plane was a type of anti-aircraft missile system built for the Russian military—the exact type of rocket launcher system pro-Russian militants captured weeks ago in fighting within Ukraine. The rebels had made a point to advertise their capture of the weapon in videos and photos online.

The Ukrainian government said its security team had intercepted radio and phone chatter between the rebels, and between the militants and their Russian counterparts, in the minutes before and after the plane’s destruction. The plane, which was on a long flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was flying at about 30 thousand feet when it was struck. At least 150 of the passengers were citizens of the Netherlands, with hundreds more from scores of other countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.

President Putin, who happened to be on the phone with President Obama earlier today, informed the U.S. President that a plane had gone down somewhere near the border between southeastern Ukraine and Russia. Minutes later, Obama also received word from U.S. national security advisors of the crash. Later, after the call, Putin denied that either Russia or the pro-Russian militants has anything to do with the downing of the plane, and instead blamed the government of Kiev for creating a state of war. Ukrainian officials said that the plane was shot down as an act of terror by militants.

The weapon system apparently used to down the Malaysian is called BUK-M, or Gadfly—a radar-guided system designed to accurately track high-altitude military planes which move at high speed. American military experts say that the missile system could easily take down a slower-moving commercial airplane. The U.S. military confirmed that its high tech tracking systems—some of which have been routinely monitoring the fighting in the Ukraine—detected the launch of a ground-to-air missile matching the exact heat signature of a BUK-M. Seconds later, the explosion was easily detected by satellite tracking systems. The plane went down about 18 miles from the Russian border.

Aviation authorities noted that Malaysia Airlines has been continuing routine flights using this course across Europe since there had been no civil aviation mandate to not fly over the Ukraine at high altitude. This flight was being tracked normally, except that it had deviated slightly further north than its usual flight path.

Investigating the crash site in what amounts to a war zone may be difficult. Aviation experts and transportation authorities representing the international community would need access to the crash area, but it not clear that in this area of the Ukraine—still under a state of siege and very much under the control of the pro-Russian militants—that such an examination of the evidence will be possible. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this evening that the investigation should be guided by the European Union. The United Nations Security Council planned to hold an emergency meeting tonight to discuss the airliner’s downing.

Foreign policy experts—as well as business analysts—fear that the downing of the Malaysian airplane will feed the fear and violence already widespread in the Ukraine. Political instability in the Ukraine may ultimately force outside military intervention, and that same instability will surely causes markets to react negatively. Though in principle many European countries support the U.S. sanctions against Russia for it involvement in the Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, many nations in the EU fear Putin could easily disrupt oil and gas supplies to countries still struggling to emerge from recession.

(More on this topic on Friday)

Related Thursday Review articles:

How Dangerous is the Ukraine Crisis?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 14, 2014.

Rebirth of the Cold War?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; March 23, 2014.