Is MH17 disaster a result of tragic blunder?

In the last few days, two Ukrainian warplanes were brought down over Eastern Ukraine (one allegedly by a Russian jet) and on Thursday a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane crashed in the area, apparently with the loss of all 298 souls on board. If it turns out that the unfortunate civilian airliner was also shot down, Russia and its local allies could again be implicated. Understandably, the international community will wonder whether this portends an escalation in the Kremlin ambitions there.

Vice President Joe Biden is already sure he knows what happened, telling an audience in Detroit on Thursday that the plane has "been shot down, not an accident. Blown out of the sky." Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko calls this "an act of terrorism" and is pointing the rhetorical finger at Moscow.

While all the facts are not yet in, it is indeed possible that a Russian surface-to-air missile brought the civilian plane down. If so, Russia or its Ukrainian separatist allies bear heavy responsibility for this tragedy. But that would not indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin's overall strategy in the region has changed.

If a Russian missile did bring down MH17, it is likely that it was the result of a tragic error, a case of mistaken identity, rather than an intentional act by either the Russian military or their Ukrainian separatist allies. Such accidents are sadly not unprecedented.

In 1983, Soviet Air Defense Forces tracking an American electronic reconnaissance plane operating near their naval facilities on the Kamchatka Peninsula mistakenly shot down Korean Airline Flight 007 with the loss of 269 passengers, including a hard-line anticommunist U.S. congressman. And during the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf in 1988, a U.S. Navy AEGIS cruiser -- the USS Vincennes -- mistook Iran Air Flight 655 for an attacking Iranian warplane and shot it down, killing 290 civilians. Such tragic accidents happen in wartime or periods of heightened international tensions.

If it turns out that this is what happened in this case, the Russian military and their Ukrainian allies will suffer a well-deserved black eye. The Russian Air Defense Forces ought to have been able to distinguish a civilian airliner, operating on a previously filed flight plan and with its electronic identification systems operating, from Ukrainian warplanes. If they gave a high-altitude system to the Ukrainian separatists, then they also should have anticipated that an accident like this could have happened given that the Donetsk Republic has only primitive radar systems.

But there is blame to go around. Why did MH17's flight path take it right over a war zone in which two warplanes had just been shot down? You have to wonder what the airline and the Ukrainian and Russian civilian air controllers were thinking.

Even if events transpired as Biden and Poroshenko surmise, it's unlikely to indicate any major change in the Kremlin's ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. There is no evidence that Putin has deviated from his strategy of keeping the pot boiling in the region and begun moving toward something more ambitious.

Indeed, all the evidence suggests that he understands that the Donetsk Republic is not the Crimea. The best he can hope for is to use the pro-Russian insurgency as a lever to pry Kiev out of its increasingly Western orientation and as a bargaining chip with the new Ukrainian regime to get it to adopt a more federal political system that will keep Ukraine suspended between East and West.

This is, of course, a cold-blooded Machiavellian strategy of realpolitik. But such a cynical approach to the Eastern Ukraine is not incompatible with this event being nothing more than a tragic blunder.

Michael Desch is a professor and chairman of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame. He specializes in international security and American foreign and defense policies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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