The shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17 near eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, is tragic. Innocent travellers were caught up in a conflict area they were flying over and perhaps shot down by non-State actors who were handling sophisticated weapon systems without necessary safeguards. It is plausible that the airliner was shot down in error by pro-Russian rebels in the Donetsk region who have been fighting the Ukrainian military. Ukrainian intelligence released intercepted, but unconfirmed, conversations between rebels and Russian officials where the former appear to claim to have downed an aircraft. It is said that the militia was using the Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile. Russia and the rebels have blamed Ukraine for the crash. The Russians who back the rebels in eastern Ukraine have clearly failed to understand the implications of allowing rebels to control such weapon systems. This incident should be a wake-up call to governments about the impact of easily available weaponry on security worldwide.
The Malaysian Airline tragedy also highlights challenges to aviation in conflict prone areas. Flight technology has improved remarkably to tackle capricious weather — while improved airport security after 9/11 has made hijacking largely a thing of the past. But airlines and governments need to pay more attention to dangers of flying over conflict areas such as Ukraine, Iraq and Syria. The danger is not inconsiderable; around 17 commercial aircraft have been shot down since the 1950s. Insufficiently alert to this possibility, Malaysian Airlines authorities continued to use the eastern Ukraine route while several other airlines, including from Australia, Japan and South Korea, have avoided that corridor for months. The Indian authorities have been napping too as our commercial aircraft have been using that route. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s journey was also on the same flight path. Airlines choose particular routes to save on fuel and time. One hopes that the PM’s flight path too was not decided with such considerations in mind. It is baffling that the authorities were not alert to this even though a Ukrainian fighter plane was shot down in the region on Wednesday.
The crash will increase tensions between Russia and the West. Relations have been fraught over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea this year and its backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine. Moscow must separate its regional policy from the demands of this tragedy and fully cooperate with the investigation that ensues.