“I think it’s important for us to recognize that this outrageous event underscores that it is time for peace and security to be restored in Ukraine.” In a press conference on July 18, President Barack Obama strongly condemned the senseless violence marring Ukraine, which has culminated in the deaths of 298 people aboard fallen Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine. President Obama noted that “the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine.” Although the attack apparently came from a non-state actor, Obama’s comments indirectly indicted Russia for the attack, because it appears to have supplied the separatists with training, arms, and anti-aircraft weapons. Moreover, the separatists may have direct involvement with Russian military, and the Russian military itself is reportedly attacking Eastern Ukraine.
Yet even as Russian President Vladimir Putin receives international backlash for Russia’s apparent role in the Malaysia Airlines crisis, the United States itself set the precedent for the tragic downing of a civilian aircraft. Indeed, in July 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 innocent civilians. At the time, President Ronald Reagan defended the attack as simply a “proper defense action” and never issued an apology.
Ever since former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of a deal with the European Union in order to pursue closer ties with Russia, Ukraine has been in constant unrest, beginning with riots in Kiev and evolving into a national war. Russia proceeded to use its military to seize the Crimea from Ukraine, and pro-Russian separatists have extended the fight to Eastern Ukraine, with apparent military support from Russia. In recent weeks, separatists in Ukraine have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane and a Ukrainian helicopter, while also claiming responsibility for the loss of a Ukrainian fighter jet. Despite international sanctions and criticism, Russia has continued supporting these separatists. Although the tragedy of Flight MH17 was unexpected and perhaps unplanned, it is a consequence of the escalation of the ongoing Ukraine crisis.
Similarly, the U.S. attack on a civilian aircraft occurred as result of ongoing political conflict. During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the United States supported the Saddam Hussein-led Iraqi forces. On July 3, 1988, the Vincennes pursued Iranian gunboats into Iranian territorial waters, during which it misidentified the Iran Air civilian passenger flight as an attacking Iranian F-14 Tomcat fighter. The aircraft was making squawks in Mode III, an indication of a civilian aircraft; however, the Vincennes reportedly misinterpreted the squawks as Mode II, an indication of Iranian military planes. The Vincennes tried multiple radio challenges to the aircraft, but after receiving no response, it fired two surface-to-air missiles, which destroyed Iran Air Flight 655.
In both cases, heightened military tensions led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians. In Ukraine, separatists will likely claim they misidentified Flight MH17 as a military plane as justification for the attack. Undoubtedly, many in Ukraine will view the attack as intentional and malicious. Similarly, in Iran, the United States claimed to have misidentified Iran Air Flight 655 and partially blamed psychological pressure faced by the Vincennes crew. On the other hand, according to former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack in The Persian Puzzle, the “Iranian government assumed the attack had been purposeful” and that “Washington was trying to signal that the United States had decided to openly enter the war on Iraq’s side.” Although the attack occurred under a past administration, the Obama administration also has not apologized for the incident, which continues to place a dark cloud over United States-Iran relations.
During the July 18 press conference, President Obama stated the deaths from Flight MH17 “are a outrage of unspeakable proportions.” He added that Russia “has continued to violate Ukrainian sovereignty and to support violent separatists.” Instead of accepting any responsibility for the attack, Putin blamed Ukraine, claiming, “The government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy.” However unethical and abhorrent Putin’s comments are, America nonetheless created an important precedent for global superpowers to disregard civilian deaths in similar scenarios.
In his address, President Obama pushed for “peace and security” in Ukraine, yet after the Vincennes attack, the United States did not accept the Soviet Union’s request to withdraw from the area. Further, Obama criticized Russia for violating “Ukrainian sovereignty” and supporting “violent separatists,” yet the Vincennes went into Iranian waters and shot down a plane in Iranian airspace. The Iranian government argued that had the civilian air passenger truly been a F-14 Tomcat fighter, the United States still would have had no legal right to shoot it down, since it was in Iranian airspace. Furthermore, despite outrage from Middle Eastern nations, the United States has continued its controversial drone program, which has killed innocent civilians while seemingly disregarding state sovereignty.
Lastly, the United States cannot expect an apology from Putin for Flight MH17 after its own refusal to formally apologize. President Reagan defended the crew of the Vincennes for following “standing orders and highly publicized procedures.” Reagan’s Vice President, George H. W. Bush, even refused to apologize for the incident at a campaign function, saying, “I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are.”
Eventually, under President Bill Clinton in 1996, the United States agreed to pay Iran $131.8 million in a settlement for damages from Flight 655. But the United States still has not publicly apologized. Rather than humanely accepting responsibility for their actions, the United States and Russia have both used their roles as global superpowers to engage in a zero-sum game, using rhetoric to try to win over potential allies and domestic support. However, to create a coexistent state system with positive-sum gains, global powers must stop looking at tragedies as a way to score political points. They must take responsibility, engage in international cooperation, and welcome foreign aid. Flight MH17 was not a pawn in the global chess game. It was a tragedy in which infants surrendered their promising futures, loving wives became broken widows, ambitious AIDS researchers died on a quest to save lives, and hundreds of global citizens with basic unalienable rights lost their right to life.
Image credit: Zmeyev/Reuters