The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 has undoubtedly catapulted the scope of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine into an issue of global interest. Aside from the death of 192 Dutch and 44 Malaysian nationals, the list of countries affected by this tragedy is a broad one; 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, 10 Brits, and 4 Germans are also amongst those killed. Although currently unproven, the claims that Flight MH17 was shot down by Ukrainian separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine, armed with Russian anti-aircraft weaponry, thus far appear the most convincing reason for this catastrophe. The inevitability of worldwide action being taken, regardless of whichever belligerent is found to be responsible, is glaringly obvious.
An increase in the pre-existing economic and political sanctions against Russia have already been announced by the EU and the US in an act of solidarity; they will be enforced by early next week. Until confirmation is given as to who destroyed the plane, this is the only foreseeable course of action to be taken by the West. This understandable hardening of their position towards Russia has truly limited any existing potential for a compromise to be made over the issue of Ukrainian self determination and sovereignty. Repercussions will fail to go further than that though. Despite the transparency of this Western response, there are those still those discussing the possibility of an eruption of global conflict. As always, this has resulted from media scaremongering aiming to breed an atmosphere of irrational trepidation for the purpose of chasing profit, rather than being founded upon any true strong historical or political arguments.
The closest comparison that can be made to this incident that would give us any indication as to the likelihood of an outbreak of global conflict is that of the Cold War. Correlations which can be found between the two serve only to explain why conflict resulting from the destruction of Flight MH17 is an extremely unlikely outcome in these days of little precariousness.
From a realist perspective, international norms would suggest that the Netherlands, or indeed the EU with US backing, would be inclined to initiate some form of military retribution upon either the Ukrainian separatist rebels or the Russians. This was an option often adhered to during the Cold War period when the entire world became polarised, forced to act against the enemy in order to enhance prestige. This also worked on another level; governments with electoral success in mind would often use such displays of strength in order to enhance their vote share, as nothing was more popular during the Cold War than perceived national vigour. Luckily in the 21st century, warmongering is an issue which repulses rather than enchants national vigour. Our process of electoral accountability means that no administration would risk a comfortable position as government in order to respond to an incident with significant force. It is highly unlikely therefore, that any action taken by the West with regards to this Flight will increase the chances of or spark a World War.
It is easy to assume that democratic nations would act in a manner so rationally on the international stage, yet many still doubt the integrity of Russia, especially with Vladimir Putin at the helm. Putin’s Russia and how it functions on the international stage does have a tendency to display similarities to the USSR of the 70s and 80s. The land grabbing currently seen in Ukraine and the invasion of South Ossetia in 2008 often has people worrying about Russia’s volatility. How would Russia act should the West be seen to have incensed it? In truth, I find it difficult to believe that Russia is an illogical nation. Putin knows that painting the image of a great Mother Russia by invading small swathes of land will skyrocket his popularity in a country in which people seemingly heed so easily to blind patriotism. There is nothing irrational about stirring up support. Yet, at the same time, he should be justifiably wary of the West’s domination in terms of military and economic capacity, treading more carefully than with smaller nations would be wise. Mutual assistance forms the basis of NATO’s ethos, meaning any form of retaliation towards the West and a significant show of force would be reciprocated. Should Russia find itself in such a position, it would also find itself stranded. Russia’s allies would begin dropping like flies in order to maintain relations with the West who, ultimately, can offer nations far more in the way of beneficial economic and diplomatic ties. An attack on the West would ruin Russia, and expose Putin to ridicule by his people.
A resurrection of the Cold War arising from the grounding of Flight MH17 is not going to happen any time soon, with Russia and the West looking to be prevented from open war for a long time yet.