EU Reacts to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 Tragedy

The EU response to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the war zone in Eastern Ukraine highlights difficulties faced by independent nations responding to international conflicts.  Erika Marty examines the obstacles faced in the initial days as well as the development of a collective and unified EU response.

"Makeshift memorial at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport for the victims of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 which crashed in the Ukraine on 18 July 2014 killing all 298 people on board."

“Makeshift memorial at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport for the victims of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 which crashed in the Ukraine on 18 July 2014 killing all 298 people on board.”

The European reaction to the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was multifaceted and highlights the difficulties faced in responding to such a large-scale tragedy by independent nations.  In the days following the crash, reactions included anger, disbelief, and a strong desire to find answers and bring justice to those responsible for the tragedy.  These reactions all served as a catalyst for a European response that has highlighted the struggle to develop a consensus among independent nations and demonstrated the potential and effectiveness of a unified EU response to international conflicts.

The difficulty of addressing a rescue and recovery operation as well as an investigation of integrity quickly became apparent as several nations sent their own teams to establish independent data on what occurred the day Flight MH17 crashed. The first days following the crash demonstrated the difficulty of nationally created investigative teams to access the site as rebels only allowed small teams in at one time and fired warning shots when the real investigative work began.

The fragmented and nationally divided investigative teams faced hurdles in achieving access to the crash site.  The group that was able to access the site most quickly in these first days was the OSCE, due to the fact that they were already in the area.  They also were ineffective as they are unarmed and could only serve in an observational role while while waiting for cooperation from the rebel forces and Ukrainian officials.  At the same time, the OSCE’s biggest asset, the membership of Russia, also serves as its biggest constraint as it toes a line between western interests and the increasingly nationalistic Russian focus of the last decade.  As the organization received much attention during the course of the response and investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airline flight 17, the discussion of the creation of an international emergency response body has broadened and become more popular.

As the days progressed and more information became readily available, the potential complicity of Russia elicited an angry response from leaders all over the world, and especially from the Eurozone.  The conclusion that the missile that hit Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was an SA-11 missile, which came front a BUK missile launcher located in rebel held territory in eastern Ukraine, further implicated Russian involvement.  According to the United States military, the SA-11, or BUK is a surface to air missile that is guided by radar and can hit targets up to 22,000 meters high. These missiles were first developed in the 1970’s in the former Soviet Union.  Although both Ukrainian and Russian militaries have variations of these weapons in their possession, the accusation has been that not only are they Russian-made weapons, but also that they were provided to the separatists in Ukraine by the Russian military.  While Russia adamantly denies any involvement, the United States released satellite images demonstrating the location of the missile launchers and in conjunction with the EU has held Russia liable for providing rebels access to such weapons.  British Prime Minister David Cameron went so far as to say in a Sunday Times article that the downing of flight 17 was a “direct result of Russia destabilizing a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, and backing thuggish militias and training and arming them” in reference to the annexation of the Crimea region earlier in the conflict and Russian support for the separatists in Ukraine.  He continued his appeal to change the tragedy into a moment of action and called upon his European counterparts to respond vigorously in the form of sanctions.

While the initial days saw many hurdles in addressing an international conflict, the following week demonstrated the strength of a unified EU response as they pushed not only for access to the site, but for sanctions against Russia which has been accused of complicity in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17.  A pivotal moment in finally getting the EU to respond with sanctions against Russia was the emotional appeal by the Dutch Foreign Minister, Frans Timmermans, to his colleagues in an EU session in Brussels.  The EU sanctions were finalized on July 29th and cover arms dealings, the energy sector, and the financial sector.  Also important to note, is that with these new rounds of sanctions, it is the first time sanctions have covered entire sectors rather than simply individuals or specific business firms. The potential to force Russia into a role of cooperation significantly increases with a unified EU response in conjunction with support from the United States and other nations.

The magnitude of the disaster and the emotional response int he aftermath has resulted in increasing public pressure to condemn and bring to justice the perpetrators of such an outrageous crime. The effect and fallout of war have been readily apparent in the course of this disaster while the release of gruesome images in the days after the crash have elicited a response of anger and search for justice and those responsible. The outrage of European officials such as Frans Timmermans, but also from citizens has created the conditions for the EU to increase sanctions on Russia even with the possibility of a detrimental effect on the EU economy as members are just emerging from the financial crisis. Until the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, pubic opinion as well as political desire within the EU was to resist additional sanctions against Russia in order to preserve joint economic ventures and avoid getting further involved in the conflict.  With the stark emotional response and outrage at images and stories of difficulties in accessing the site and identifying the victims increasing daily, the EU was able to form a unified response effectively condemning and punishing Russia for its complicity in the crime.

The potential of a federal EU role in the response to international conflicts is one of power, consensus, and cooperation even if it is at first hesitant or cautious. The difficulties seen in the initial days of response to the tragedy have demonstrated the need and capability to establish a joint disaster response team comprised of representatives and investigators of all member nations. Not only would this increase the credibility and recognition of the response and recovery teams, but it would also greatly increase the efficacy of a timely investigation as well as the recovery effort.  While the initial response to the tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 demonstrated the difficulties of a weak, fragmented EU response; the following days and weeks have highlighted the great potential of a unified EU response and the efficacy of broad sanctions and cooperation between member states.

The image “Amsterdam Airport: Flight MH17 Memorial” courtesy of Roman Boed via, released under creative commons.

Print Friendly