What's In Blue

Posted Fri 18 Jul 2014

Ukraine Meeting Following Crash of Malaysia Airlines Plane

This morning the Council will meet in its chamber to be briefed by Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, following yesterday’s Malaysia Airlines jet crash in the eastern Ukraine amidst continued fighting in south-east Ukraine. The UK, supported by Lithuania, requested an urgent meeting on the situation in Ukraine yesterday. A similar request came from Ukraine who also asked to participate in the meeting and is likely to be represented by its Ambassador, Yuri Sergeyev. At press time, it seemed possible that Malaysia and the Netherlands might also participate although it was less clear if other states directly affected by the tragedy would be involved. (Malaysia Airline flight MH17 carried individuals of numerous nationalities and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines codeshared the flight as KL4103. Rule 37 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council allows a member to participate in discussions when its interests are affected, contingent on Council members’ consent.)

It seems that Council members may issue a press statement expressing condolences to the families of those who died in the crash and call for an independent and international investigation of the incident. The draft press statement was put under silence procedure last night but it seems Russia asked for more time, resulting in an extension of the deadline to this morning.

The Council has not been particularly active on Ukraine recently in spite of ongoing unrest and the growing number of causalities. Even the shooting down of two Ukrainian military jets earlier this week did not seem to prompt any Council member to request a meeting. However, the ramifications of the Malaysia Airways plane crash appear to have been the catalyst for some Council members to bring Ukraine back into the Council’s spotlight.

The Malaysia Airlines commercial plane travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed close to the Russian border in the area of eastern Ukraine where there has been heavy fighting between Ukrainian government forces and the separatists. According to media reports all 298 people aboard the plane are dead.

At today’s meeting Council members will be interested in getting greater clarity on yesterday’s plane crash, though it is unclear if Feltman has much to add to what is already being extensively reported in the media. Yesterday the Secretary-General, Ban ki-Moon, called for an investigation into the crash and Feltman may reiterate the need for a full and transparent investigation. Council members whose nationals died in the incident include Australia, France and the UK and these members are likely to strongly advocate for an international and independent investigation of the incident in order to determine the exact causes of the crash. Members interested in having such an investigation could be looking for further details about how and by whom it could best be conducted. Media reports indicate that the rebels in eastern Ukraine have agreed to give international investigators access to the crash site and that members of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Ukraine monitoring mission are expected to arrive at the site later today.

While an investigation will be needed to properly determine the reason for the crash, international reactions seem to indicate that few believe that it was due to mechanical failure. Following the incident US Vice President Joeseph Biden said that the Malaysia Airlines plane had been apparently shot down by a long range missile. Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly said that “the government of the territory on which the incident happened bears responsibility for the tragedy” and also that “downing of a plane would not have happened if Kiev had not mounted a military campaign against the rebels”. Immediately following the incident, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing of the plane an act of terrorism, while separatists in the east denied responsibility for the incident.

Even though the Malaysia Airline crash will dominate the discussion, it is likely that some Council members will use this opportunity to also talk about the other planes that have been shot down recently and point to the Russian role and involvement in the crisis in Ukraine. There may also be calls for Russia to engage in deescalating the crisis. Russia will likely accuse Ukrainian armed forces of engaging in punitive operations against its citizens in Donetsk and Lugansk and highlight the growing number of Ukrainian refugees in Russia.

The day before the Malaysia Airlines incident, a Ukrainian military fighter jet was shot down in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government accused Russia of shooting down the fighter jet using a Russian military plane while at the same time separatists in the east claimed responsibility. On 14 July, a Ukrainian military transport plane was shot down in the east. The Ukrainian government has said that the plane was likely hit by a missile fired from the Russian side of the border, an accusation refuted by Russia.

Since the Council last met on Ukraine on 24 June to discuss human rights and political situation, the fighting in the south-east of the county has intensified. On 20 June, Poroshenko had proposed a 15 point peace plan and a unilateral ceasefire. The ceasefire, though extended from the initial seven to 10 days, collapsed amid continued fighting and new causalities. This prompted a 2 July meeting in Berlin of foreign ministers from Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. They signed a joint declaration calling for the establishment of a lasting truce, and the need for an urgent meeting of the Contact Group consisting of Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE. The Contact Group held a meeting on 6 July where it called for urgent concrete progress towards the peaceful settlement of the crisis. A second meeting took place in Kiev on 15 July. Representatives of the separatists were supposed to participate in the meeting via teleconference but failed to do so. In a statement following the meeting, the Contact Group indicated there is a “lack of willingness on the side of separatists to engage in substantive talks on mutually agreed ceasefire”.

Amid growing tensions in Ukraine and alleged involvement of Russia in the crisis, both the US and the EU have bolstered sanctions on Russia. The US imposed a much wider set of sanctions that will affect a broader sector of the Russian economy targeting major banks, defence and energy sector. The EU leaders also agreed to increase sanctions on Russia, though the complete list of targeted individuals and entities will be announced only at the end of the month.

In spite of the obvious deterioration of the situation in Ukraine and the lack of progress on any sort of political settlement, due to differing positions, particularly between Russia on the one hand, and the P3 and the EU members of the Council on the other hand, the Council has found it difficult to take action on Ukraine. So far, after almost five months of discussing the situation in Ukraine, it has only been able to agree on one press statement (condemning the killing of Russian and Italian journalists [SC/11442 of 17 June]). During its presidency in June, Russia proposed three draft resolutions on Ukraine, none of which went past the initial negotiation stages. Most recently, on 11 July, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin (Russia) circulated elements for a future draft of a resolution focused on the situation in east Ukraine. It seems the draft elements included an expression of concern about the increasing numbers of casualties; support for international proposals for the settlement of the crisis; a call for parties to the conflict to implement the provisions of international proposals; and a call for the OSCE to facilitate the settlement of the crisis. So far there has been no serious negotiation of the draft but the P3 and European members of the Council seem unlikely to accept any draft that does not contain reference to the territorial integrity of Ukraine including Crimea, as well as references to the illegal transfer of weapons from Russia to Ukraine.

Given the recent developments, it is unclear if Russia will press ahead with this draft or whether some of the other Council members may decide for the press statement to be followed with a formal decision of the Council. In past cases where a passenger plane was shot down, the Council moved toward stronger action. In 1983, when a Korean passenger jet (flight KAL 007) was shot down by the Soviet Union on 1 September, the Council had a series of public meetings over a 12 day period and a draft resolution (S/15966/Rev.1) was put on the table. Russia, vetoed the resolution which among other things would have asked the Secretary-General to conduct a full investigation and report his findings to the Council in 14 days. Having a member of the P5 involved in an incident does not necessarily lead to a veto. In 1988 when Iran Air flight 655 was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz on 3 July by a missile fired from a US gunship, the Council responded on 20 July by adopting resolution 616 which expressed distress at the US downing of the jet and welcomed a fact finding mission. This resolution also linked this event to the need for the implementation of resolution 598 on the Iraq/Iran conflict, adopted exactly one year earlier. While at this stage members may not be ready to attempt a more substantive outcome addressing the conflict more broadly, if an investigation is conducted, there might then be interest and resolve in following up the findings with concerted Council action aimed at deescalating the situation in Ukraine.

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