Skip to main content

It's happened before: MH17 tragedy was part of a bigger air war

By Mark Kramer
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed in mid-July in eastern Ukraine. Here, a woman walks with her bicycle near the crash site on Saturday, August 2. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed in mid-July in eastern Ukraine. Here, a woman walks with her bicycle near the crash site on Saturday, August 2.
HIDE CAPTION
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark Kramer: Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft
  • Kramer: Russia has bullied, intimidated and violated the sovereignty of its neighbors
  • There is little evidence that this attack, or others in the past, will induce the Kremlin to back down

Editor's note: Mark Kramer is director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard University and Senior Fellow of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine last week, most likely after being struck with a missile fired by pro-Russian rebel forces, was followed this week by the rebels' shoot-down of two Su-25 attack aircraft deployed by the Ukrainian Air Force.

These incidents reflect a typical pattern in insurgencies and counterinsurgency operations. Air power is often crucial in fighting insurgents, as it has been recently in Ukraine. The Ukrainian air force has made up for the poor performance of Ukrainian ground units by driving rebel forces into retreat. The Su-25 ground-attack planes that were shot down this week were part of a renewed Ukrainian air offensive against rebel positions.

Because governments fighting insurgencies often enjoy a monopoly or major advantage in air power, rebel fighters must try to offset this advantage by using surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs, and other air-defense weapons. That is precisely what has been happening recently in Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels have shot down at least a dozen Ukrainian military aircraft over the past few months.

Mark Kramer
Mark Kramer

The downing of MH17 was apparently a tragic mistake, not a deliberate attack on a passenger airliner flying at high altitude. The pro-Russian rebels evidently believed the target was a large military transport aircraft, only to realize afterward that they had committed a terrible blunder.

Who are Ukraine's pro-Russia rebels?

But even if the downing of the airliner had been deliberate, it would not have been unprecedented. Indeed, on numerous occasions, insurgents armed by Moscow have deliberately shot down civilian planes.

In September 1978, guerrillas from the Zimbabwean People's Revolutionary Army shot down an Air Rhodesia passenger airliner using a Soviet-supplied SA-7 shoulder-fired SAM. Dozens were killed in the crash, but 56 passengers survived. The guerrillas methodically hunted down the survivors and killed them (though a small number evaded death by hiding).

Five months later, in February 1979, Zimbabwean guerrillas once again used a Soviet-supplied SA-7 to shoot down an Air Rhodesia passenger aircraft. All the passengers and crew died in the crash. In December 1988, Polisario Front guerrillas in Morocco used Soviet-supplied missiles to attack two U.S. DC-7 civilian aircraft that were spreading insecticide against a locust infestation. One of the planes crashed, killing all five Americans on board.

After the Soviet Union broke apart, the new government in Moscow continued to arm and train insurgent forces, focusing on other former Soviet republics. On three consecutive days in September 1993, Russian-backed separatist guerrillas in the Abkhazian region of Georgia deliberately attacked Transair Georgian Airways passenger flights, using Russian-supplied shoulder-held SA-7s against two of them in flight and artillery against the third during boarding. A total of 136 people were killed in the three incidents.

Expert: Hard to prove Russian control
U.S.: Russia 'enflaming' Ukraine conflict
Russian troops near Ukrainian border

This record of Soviet and Russian support for insurgents who target civilian aircraft is important to bear in mind when judging the latest crisis over Ukraine. In all these earlier instances from the 1970s through the 1990s, Moscow-backed guerrillas deliberately attacked civilian planes. By contrast, in last week's downing of MH17, the likelihood is that the rebels only targeted the passenger aircraft because they thought it was a military plane.

No one has yet apologized for the incident, and the pro-Russian forces' handling of the crash site has been despicable, but the downing was not akin to the deliberate attacks that occurred in earlier years.

Many flights soar over conflict zones

Many observers have depicted events in Ukraine, including the MH17 tragedy, as reflecting something peculiar about Russian foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin. But as the 1993 attacks by Abkhazian fighters indicate, Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin often dealt with Russia's neighbors in a similar manner, seeing them as little more than vassal states.

Under both Yeltsin and Putin, Russia has bullied, intimidated, destabilized and violated the sovereignty of its neighbors, especially Georgia, Moldova, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, whenever they have been led by rulers the Russian authorities dislike. Since 1992, Russia has consistently supported the entrenchment of authoritarian regimes in neighboring states and opposed upheavals and popular unrest directed against authoritarian rulers.

The historical record of Russia's domineering policy toward other former Soviet republics has often been disregarded in the recent flurry of commentary about Ukraine and MH17. One observer, writing last week on Forbes.com, declared that the MH17 disaster marked "the first case of rebels, supplied by a major power with surface-to-air missiles, bringing down a passenger plane." That statement is absurd and reflects an underlying ignorance of the long record of Russia's imperious dealings with its neighbors.

When thinking about where things might head now in Ukraine, we need to separate entrenched patterns from what is truly distinctive. Many observers get caught up with the daily twists and turns and fail to consider relevant historical precedents.

In each case in the past when Moscow-backed guerrillas deliberately attacked civilian aircraft, the incidents had no lasting impact on the conflicts and did not induce the Kremlin to back down. After the September 1993 attacks that destroyed three Georgian passenger planes, Yeltsin not only maintained his staunch support of the Abkhazian separatists but also deployed thousands of Russian troops in Abkhazia to deter the Georgian government from trying to reclaim it.

Over the past week many have predicted that MH17 will be a "game-changer" and might even lead to the unraveling of Putin's regime. The historical record gives us little reason to be confident about such optimistic prognoses.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:27 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 6:09 PM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 2:02 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 1:41 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
updated 3:00 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
updated 8:57 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
updated 4:40 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
updated 2:05 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT