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Q&A: Flight MH17 and the spiralling conflict in Ukraine

Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have successfully defied the government in Kiev, but will have gravely harmed their cause if they brought down flight MH17. EPA

The shooting down of flight MH17 has thrust the separatist conflict in Ukraine back into the international spotlight. The Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels have been locked in a military and propaganda battle since March, but the downing of a civilian aircraft could be a game-changer.

While the facts are still being established, both sides are scrambling to blame the other for an act that has drawn global condemnation.

The Conversation spoke with terrorism expert Greg Barton from Monash University to gain a sense of the situation in Ukraine and who the separatists are.

Who is the rebel group suspected of shooting down Flight MH17? What are they fighting for?

The Ukrainian government in Kiev describes groups such as the Donetsk People’s Republic as being “terror” groups and operations against them as “anti-terror operations”, but I think that’s unfortunate language. It doesn’t add clarity.

What we know about the Ukrainian situation is that there was a popular revolution that toppled the government in mid-February this year. It was followed by a response from the Russian side, who were angry about that, who initially covertly then much more overtly moved to take control of the Crimean peninsula, where there are major Russian naval and other military bases. That was met with outrage, understandably.

But it was also then met with a series of separatist movements across the eastern part of Ukraine near the Russian border. There was initially some suggestion that this was fomented by Russian intelligence agents, probably just to put pressure on the new government in Kiev.

In recent months, there have been signs that this has been getting out of control and become an embarrassment to the Russian government, particularly as the forces have taken control of Ukrainian military weapons including armoured personal carriers and tanks. Rebels have overrun military lines and shot down a number of aircraft using rocket-propelled grenades at airfields, and also shoulder-launched missiles to bring down a large transport aircraft helicopter and a Ukrainian fighter jet just last week.

What we know of what happened over the last 24 hours suggests that the Donetsk People’s Republic – a group which is allegedly pro-Russian but not under the control of Russia, it would appear – has encountered Ukrainian forces and either overrun their lines permanently or at least taken hold of equipment. It appears that they’ve taken hold of one of the missile systems we know the Ukrainian military uses, the Russian-made “Buk” system.

This Buk system can bring down aircraft at 40-50,000 feet. This airliner was at 33,000 feet, well outside the range of any shoulder-launched system, but was unfortunately within range of what we thought was a weapons system only in military hands. Many airlines had diverted flights from eastern Ukraine for fear of escalated risk. Malaysian Airlines evidently took the view that at that altitude it was still safe, as the separatists would be using shoulder-launched missiles that are only good up to 15,000 feet.

Sadly that was a miscalculation. It would seem it would have to have been pro-Russian separatists rather than Russian or Ukrainian forces themselves, as it was someone who had enough expertise to target an overflying aircraft and launch, but perhaps not enough expertise to realise that they had targeted a civilian aircraft rather than what they thought was a Ukrainian transport aircraft.

If it is found to be this separatist group that shot down the aircraft, where does it leave them now in terms trying to advance their agenda?

I think it’s safe to assume that it has left them in a perilous position. It’s hard to imagine they would have thought that deliberately targeting a commercial airliner was a good idea. They still bear the criticism of being prepared to target an aircraft in any case that was unidentified and bring it down.

I think this will precipitate a response from the Russian government, possibly via Vladimir Putin’s reasonably sound relationship with German chancellor Angela Merkel. There may be a move to bring NATO and Russia together to send in peacekeeping forces and a series of negotiations to end the conflicts in eastern Ukraine because it’s not in Russia’s interest, it’s not in Kiev’s interest, and it’s not in the interest of wider Europe.

A NATO response will also in some way involve American partnership. Up until now, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has been put in the “too-hard basket”. No-one has wanted to send in troops on the ground. This may be the perfect pretext for sending in a peacekeeping force that is possibly comprised of NATO and Russian soldiers.

It’s important to track language here. The Ukrainian government speaks about launching anti-terror operations, and Russia sometimes describes what the Ukranian forces from Kiev are doing as being terror operations. This loose use of the word terror helps no-one. There is such a thing as terrorism, but this is something else that’s happening here.

However morally culpable pro-Russian separatists around Donetsk are for what happened, it doesn’t help to describe their actions as acts of terror. It’s rather the horrible escalating cost of an insurgency out of control, and if there’s any good to come from it, it’s precipitating the need to move in and negotiate and send in peacekeepers since it’s clear it’s beyond the capacity of Ukrainian forces alone to do this.

We do need to pay attention to language because these things get resolved both through military power in the form of peacekeepers but also through negotiation. And that requires bringing at least two parties to the table if not more.

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