David Davis is a former Shadow Home Secretary, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden
It always takes a tragedy for the world to wake up to grave threats. The catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001 was one such incident. America initiated a period of oversees military adventurism to combat the threat of militant Islamism that reshaped the world. The callous and despicable destruction of Malaysian Airways flight MH17 over Ukrainian airspace could be another pivotal moment in history.
For too long Russia has stoked conflict around the world for its own short-term political gains. Now its actions have directly led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, 80 of them children, and one of the worlds leader’s in the battle against AIDs. In the light of such an atrocity, now is the time for the West to take a principled and firm stance.
The facts fly in the face of Russian denials. 298 men, women and children, including 10 British citizens, boarded the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on Thursday. An hour later, a Russian-made missile tore the plane apart 33,000 feet above the rebel-held Donetsk region. We can only pray that the tragedy was over so quickly that the passengers knew nothing of what happened.
The missile was fired from a BUK 9K37 medium range anti-aircraft system, a system first designed and built in the Soviet Union in the late 1970s. Such systems have been supplied to the Ukrainian separatists by Russia, together with the armoured vehicles, advisers, ammunition and reinforcements that have been pouring over the Russian border. The BUK is considered to be too technically complex for the separatists to use without experienced technical assistance, and it is likely that Russian personnel provided training and assistance.
Just such a system was pictured near the crash site a few hours before the missile was fired. The separatists boasted about shooting a plane down immediately after the event on social media, stating: ‘We warned them not to fly in our skies’. And the missile was tracked by an American satellite, showing that it originated in rebel-held territory. The evidence is overwhelming.
The global community must be unequivocal in its response. Vladimir Putin may not have pulled the trigger, but through stoking the conflict and supplying the rebels, he loaded the gun and handed it to the men who did. The blame can be laid firmly at his door. He has recklessly destabilised an entire country to fulfil his own desires for regional dominance. Russia’s imperialist swagger has brought the region to the brink of full-scale war.
Obama has been too weak with Russia up to this point. Russian actions in the Ukraine, their provocative military exercises, the annexation of Crimea – any of these instances could have sparked a war. There must be no more appeasement, no more soft diplomacy. As Winston Churchill once commented, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile – hoping it will eat him last.” It is time to show the Russian bear some stick.
And a lengthy international inquiry is not enough. America and NATO must demand that Russia identify and give up those responsible for this atrocity and so that they can be put on trial for murder. This is well within their capabilities. The men who operated the missile system, who caught Flight MH17 on their radar, and who fired the missile, killing 298 people – they must be brought to justice, along with their commanding officers. This must not be either a show trial, nor one held behind closed doors, with the accused disappearing into a Siberian gulag afterwards. It must be a public and transparent display of justice, holding up to the highest international standards. And it must be initiated soon, before the murderers disappear and the evidence is destroyed. The world will demand swift and true justice in this.
If Russia refuses to cooperate in this, then the West must face the realisation that Russia is not willing to be a constructive member of the international community, and should act accordingly. The limited trade sanctions that are already in place, largely asset freezes and travel bans, are having a deleterious effect on the Russian economy. But they are not enough. The additional measures that should now be put in place must be considerably more robust.
If Russia still refuses to cooperate, then the developed world must shut down its links with the world’s financial system. No Russian bank must be allowed to operate. Neither must we rule out severing trade links. It is the purchase by the West of Russia’s natural resources, oil and gas, that has allowed the Russian economy, and by extension its military, to expand back towards Cold War levels. Such a move would cost us dearly, but devastate Russia’s economy. If Russia will not cooperate, then the West must take the hit and find alternative sources of energy. We cannot permit our trade with Russia to support their territorial ambitions. We must not compromise our security merely for some short-term economic wellbeing.
In the longer run, the UK must reaffirm its commitment to NATO. We must persuade Europe to honour existing Nato obligations (currently only America and the UK spend the required two per cent of GDP on defence), reverse the headlong reduction of defence spending and pay closer attention to NATO’s existing eastern borders.
The United States and Europe have made every effort since the fall of the Soviet Union to bring Russia in from the cold. We have indulged them, like a kindly aunt with a spoiled nephew. President Obama continued in this direction, listening to Russian concerns about American missile defence plans in Europe and scaling them back accordingly. We need to remind Russia that the only way to prosper in this modern, inter-connected world is through peaceful cooperation with our neighbours. A psychopathic foreign policy is, and must be shown to be, intolerable.
We have all been guilty of burying our heads in the sand about the scale of the eastern European problem. It is a tragedy that is has taken the deaths of 298 innocent people to wake us up. Russia is threatening to drag us all into another Cold War. Any weakness from the West at this crucial time will only increase that risk.