LONDON— A year after 298 people died when Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine allegedly shot down a Malaysian passenger jet on July 17, 2014, the tragic incident still hangs over the ongoing conflict.
The Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet was on a routine flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, when a missile turned it into burned out wreckage scattered across farm fields in a separatist-controlled area.
The passengers and crew members from 10 countries became victims of a conflict they had nothing to do with. Their deaths did not end the war, but they did change it.
“I believe that it was an important turning point, because it rallied all Europeans behind an escalation of the sanctions,” says Domitilla Sagramoso of King’s College, referring to punitive measures imposed on Russia for its alleged involvement in the Ukraine conflict.
Experts reached via Skype said European countries had been reluctant to confront Russia over its role in eastern Ukraine, but that changed when the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 went down.
“The tragedy really did influence everyone’s thinking on how we could sort of go further with Russia,” Sarah Lain of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute says.
The sanctions and diplomacy that grew out of the tragedy also did not end the conflict, but they may have helped prevent a further escalation, Sagramoso says.
“This, I think, explains why the situation now is not ideal, but it has not yet escalated further,” Sagramoso says.
Negotiations in Minsk, spearheaded by the French and German leaders, led to a shaky cease-fire. But Western and Ukrainian officials say Russia, despite continued denials from Moscow, continues to supply and train the rebels. Lain says the situation has put Russia in a tough spot.
“You are seeing now that Russia itself may not know actually how to get out of this situation,” Lain says.
Some say the situation in eastern Ukraine is a "frozen conflict," but others, including Sagramoso, warn it could flare up again easily.
“If there is another accident of any sort involving civilians on either side, of the kind we saw with the Boeing [aircraft], then we might see a significant escalation and a significant change,” Sagramoso says.
Several countries, including the Netherlands — most of the tragedy’s victims were Dutch — have called for the creation of an international tribunal to bring those who were involved in the jet’s downing to justice. Russia has called the initiative “premature and counterproductive.”
The Netherlands is leading a criminal investigation into the downing of MH17. A final report on the cause of the crash is due in October.