Malaysia Flight 17: Russia, Ukraine and the International Order

Dr. Theodore Karasik

By: Dr. Theodore Karasik

Many analysts are arguing that the shooting down of Malaysia Air Flight 17 is a game-changer. Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen as the villain behind the disaster because of the Kremlin’s support of the “Novorossiya” rebels. Others are asserting that not much will change on the ground between Russia and Ukraine as the dispute over Eastern Ukraine will continue regardless of any international inquiry. This point of view seems to be short-sighted. To be sure, the event in itself is horrific and is a wake-up call to all parties that what happens between Russia and Ukraine affects the international order in a dramatic way.

There is no doubt that this tragic incident just raised the stakes higher in what is becoming an international disaster. Perhaps the shoot down of Malaysia Air Flight 17 is a defining moment – a trigger – much like the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late July 1914 and the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 whereby a regional war erupts in Europe that draws in international players especially the United States. Future events within and surrounding Ukraine will contribute to the further division lines that are being drawn, whose walls are growing higher and higher as emotions and legacies are being determined by current and future events.

Europe now united against Russia

The shoot down too is a defining moment for Putin because while conducting a robust campaign of damage control, sentiment within Russia may begin to turn against the Russian president, and those supporting the “Novorossiya” project will be held accountable. Others within Russia will likely see this moment as a galvanizing moment to push harder for Russia’s right to protect Russian citizens that Ukraine created these conditions. Either way, the Kremlin will need to deal with the international ramifications of the accident with a Europe now united against Russia at a time when Moscow will need to contend with competition between internal narratives from across its political-spiritual spectrum.

Perhaps the shoot down of Malaysia Air Flight 17 is a defining moment – a trigger – much like the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late July 1914

Dr. Theodore Karasik

While the above events are unfolding, key areas of the Middle East are erupting too. On the same day as the shoot down of Malaysia Air 17, Israel began its land invasion of Gaza. Hundreds of Arabs have already been killed and more are likely to die helping to continue a cycle of violence. Simultaneously, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is seizing assets and consolidating its power in the Levant, making plans, fighting battles, and establishing ISIS’s version of Shariah. When looking at areas of violence and contestation, it appears that these events in Ukraine and Russia and the core of the Middle East in the Levant and in Palestine is one large “swath of violence.” The very fact that all these events are occurring simultaneously will challenge regional actors and the international order. Importantly, Iraq is practically off the radar at an extremely dangerous time.

Strategic distractions

Consequently, it appears that in the coming years nation-states will see a growing amount of strategic distractions in the international order. Other simmering issues are likely to grow as attention focuses on the “swath of violence.” North Korea is taking advantage of the last week of events by shooting missiles and artillery. Afghanistan is under division due to the political situation in the wake of presidential elections in addition to Pakistani Taliban attacks that are killing over a hundred people to date. Al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria are plotting world-wide attacks. Houthis in Yemen are making a move towards carving out a larger area for their autonomy within the fractured country. Al-Shabaab is increasing its attacks against Mogadishu in Somalia. Libyan militias are fighting each other in Tripoli and the situation may lead to an out-right civil war. Boko Haram is achieving its goals of destabilizing Northeastern Nigeria. All in all, key pariah states and non-state actors see that as the international order is disrupted, distracted, and incapable of multi-tasking and will take advantage of the resulting chaotic situation to advance their agendas in the near future.

It is clear that we have turned yet another corner in terms of geopolitics in the international order. The Malaysia Air Flight 17 disaster is but one of many events that are and will occur in these times of troubles. All regional states need to set up their game in regards to dealing with multiple crises simultaneously. This fact means more manpower and resources must be dedicated to mitigating challenges and threats. The only good news is the P5+1 agreement to delay an accord for four months and the lifting of some sanctions against Iran. But there are still significant differences remaining and any failure in these talks would thrust the nuclear issue back on the front burner, adding yet another major international problem that challenges the international order. The forecast for the remainder of 2014 and 2015 looks bumpy indeed. Hold on to your seat belts.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.



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