Did Russia Just Push the World to the Brink of War?
Policy + Politics

Did Russia Just Push the World to the Brink of War?

REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

A Malaysian Airline flight traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has crashed close to the Russia Ukraine’s border. Details are still sketchy, but the Associated Press is reporting that Ukrainian officials say the plane was shot down. 

If the allegation is true - if Russian separatists backed and armed by Moscow or if Russian troops shot down the plane - it would be a stunning escalation of a conflict that had been simmering for months. Some 280 passengers and 15 crewmembers were on board. 

Related: Russia's Military Bear Is a Paper Tiger 

Information on the crash remains sketchy this afternoon. Malaysia Airlines has confirmed that it lost contact with the plane. There are also numerous reports that the plane went down near Ukraine’s Donetsk region, an area where Russian separatist and pro-Ukrainian forces have been fighting for months. It’s unlikely that Russian separatists have weaponry sophisticated enough to shoot down a plane reportedly flying at 32,000 feet and at over 500 miles per hour. 

The incident also comes a day after the European Union and the United States leveled new sanctions against Russian companies, banks and individuals. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called the new punishments “evil” on Thursday. 

It also comes amid allegations that Russian troops took down a Ukraine cargo plane on Monday. The Ukrainians claim that the shot that took down the plane originated from the Russian side of the border. After the Malaysian Airlines incident, unnamed DOD sources told CNN that they also believed that cargo plane’s kill shot came from Russian territory. 

Beyond that, the crash is shrouded in mystery. If Russia were responsible, it would escalate that local conflict to a global one; it’s highly unlikely that the United States and its European allies would react to an outright act of war against civilians with more sanctions. If the Russians took down the plane, the world could move to the edge of war. 

Related: Russian Ties to Ukraine Go Much Deeper than Gas 

However, it’s unclear why Russian President Vladimir Putin would choose to raise the stakes of the conflict at a time when he’s more or less done as he pleased in the region with little harm to the Russian economy. Putin, a seasoned Cold Warrior, no doubt knows that the deaths of 295 civilians flying from a European airport would be met with more than words and economic punishment. 

If the crash were an accident, it would be a stunning tragedy for Malaysian Airlines. Earlier this year, the airline simply lost a plane flying over Southeast Asia. A second crash in the span of six months would be disastrous for the airline. 

The circumstances of the incident suggest another possible outcome; Russian forces or Russian separatists in Ukraine could have shot down the plane by accident (CNN reported that the leader of the Donetsk resistance in Russia announced a cargo plane had been brought down around the same time the passenger jet disappeared). There are some 12,000 troops along the Russia’s border with Ukraine. Past conflicts, most recently in Georgia, have shown that these troops are often poorly trained and that Russian chains of command are rarely followed. It’s possible that troops could have mistaken the passenger flight for a cargo plane. 

There is precedent for this. In 1983, Soviet fighter pilots mistook a Korean Airlines passenger flight in Russian airspace for an American spy plane and shot it down. In that incident, 269 people were killed. 

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