Skip to main content

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

By Mark Kramer
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
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
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 0730 GMT (1530 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT