By Joseph Schmitz
Best Defense guest columnist
The shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) is far
more than just another tragic event or the consequence of big-power
carelessness. Rather, this first use of high-altitude surface-to-air missiles
against international civilian flights by non-state actors presents an unprecedented
threat to international civilian aviation.
Civilian aircraft have been destroyed by military
surface-to-air missiles before. During 1988, the USS Vincennes downed Iran Air
655, killing all 290 passengers, stoking existing animosity between the United
States and Iran. However tragic, that act occurred during low-intensity
conflict with Iran when trained U.S. military personnel believed they were
engaging a hostile Iranian F-14 fighter. However, even the $130 million
compensation paid to Iran eight years after the attack has not undone the harm
caused by that U.S. military blunder. When professional militaries can make
such mistakes, the key lesson is that nation-states should never share these deadly weapons with non-state actors.
Although the MH17 attack was probably accidental, the
reckless Russian provision of advanced missiles to militia proxies -- weapons
that had heretofore been controlled only by national military personnel -- augurs
increasingly dangerous times ahead. Even the recent UN Security Council
resolution that condemns the attack and calls for a complete investigation
papers over addressing the underlying causes of this tragedy.
The stakes are high. The international civilian aviation
network that binds nations together has been put at grave risk by poor judgment
of a Russia focused on resurgent imperialism. Such risks must not be tolerated
by the community of nations. Failure to impose consequences for shooting down
MH17 sets a precedent that local rebellions -- when supported by advanced
military powers -- can close local airspace by attacking or threatening attacks
on civilian aircraft.
An appropriate first step would be for Europe, the United
States, and all nations seeking safe international passage for civil aircraft
to sanction Russia by grounding flights to Moscow and denying Russian flights
landing rights. The general principle to be invoked would
be that when a nation or its proxies threaten an international public good upon
which the community of nations depends, that nation (and its proxies) should lose
benefits which flow from that shared good. Because Russia wantonly put the international civilian
aviation system at risk, it should be denied international civil aviation benefits
until it accepts accountability and compensates the victims of its adventurist
"No-fly" sanctions reflect the outrage of
European, Australian, Asian, and U.S. publics at the destruction of MH17 and
the deaths of its passengers. Sanctions are justified by widely reported
evidence of Russian complicity in the MH17 disaster, including satellite
imagery and communication intercepts (and social media) from multiple national
sources. Russia and its separationist proxies continue to deny and distort this
virtually conclusive evidence of their culpability for destroying MH17.
Limited "no-fly" sanctions should remain in force
until international investigators have unfettered access to the Ukraine
wreckage field, all crash evidence, and have begun analysis of data contained
in the MH17 black boxes. As a final condition, all parties to this incident,
including Russia, would have to agree to guarantee safe passage to all civilian
air traffic in the region.
Stopping international flights to and from Moscow is a
calculated response to unacceptable actions because it directly links the
consequences of the MH17 attack with Russia's provision of advanced
weapon-systems -- tanks and high-altitude missiles along with training for
their rebel proxies in Ukraine. Further, it underlines the cross-border violence
that Russia exports to Ukraine, the root cause of this tragedy.
Most importantly, "no-fly" sanctions offer strong
deterrents to any nations so reckless as to provide these deadly weapons to
non-state actors. They impose clear costs for those who would put future
civilian airliners at risk. For Russia, in particular, sanctions would entail
great loss of prestige and very real economic costs.
"No-fly" sanctions of Russia offer four other pragmatic
advantages. They target and punish unacceptable acts by tying the consequences
for such acts directly to the specific breaches of international norms. Thus, "no-fly" sanctions reinforce international norms and conventions that protect
civilians during declared or undeclared wars and guarantee free passage for civil
Moreover, these sanctions punish "bad" behavior
but can readily be eased by subsequent "good" behavior by Russia. "No-fly" sanctions would give the Putin government a way out and are less
likely to ignite a tit-for-tat resumption of Cold War adversarial relations
between Russia and the West.
Third, "no-fly" sanctions entail real costs to
Russia for introducing advanced weapons into Russian-instigated border wars
while symmetrical Russian sanction reprisals would also cost Russia. This cost dynamic could encourage Russia to
reduce the scope and violence of its actions. A tailored "no-fly" MH17
shoot-down response may even alter the present Russian calculus toward violence
as Russia seeks to redress what it views as the West's overreach after the
Soviet Union's dissolution.
Finally, micro-targeted "no-fly" sanctions should
satisfy outraged EU, Asian, and U.S. residents. Because "no-fly"
sanctions address the tragic consequences of introducing advanced missiles in
proxy wars, they would leverage popular outrage to counter opposition to
Russian sanctions by European and U.S. vested economic interests. Thus, they
will be more difficult for global elites with political and economic ties to
Russia to oppose.
Sadly, the MH17 tragedy represents a harbinger of events to
come. This diffusion of increasingly destructive technology among non-state
actors presents "wicked problems" for complex, interconnected
societies. Our interdependence and complexity renders us increasingly
vulnerable to non-state actors with a grudge and access to modern weapons with
vastly increased destructive capabilities.
The international community must find creative ways to
address this new threat environment to the interdependent global order that we
now take for granted. The surface-to-air missile technology that destroyed MH17
is now 40 years old. Indeed, I first learned about the Buk missile's
predecessor (the SA-6) as a young Air Force intelligence officer in 1973. Yet
the shoot-down of MH17 represents the first use of such lethal technology by
non-state actors who lack the authority, responsibility, and accountability of
nation-states. This diffusion of weapons technologies threatens the established
order of nations in ways that we must now recognize and address.
Sanctions, however "smart," will not alone shield
us from these new risks. However, they can reinforce international norms that
protect civilians and the infrastructures upon which we depend -- and thus
reduce the virulence, severity, and consequences of these limited wars.
Joseph Schmitz, a
retired USAF pilot and military intelligence officer, has a Ph.D. in
communication theory and research. He has written about unconventional warfare
in Algeria. He also developed and taught aviation safety courses for the FAA in
via Dmitry Rozhkov/Wikimedia Commons