17 July marks one year since Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over the Ukraine, taking with it 298 people – 27 of which were Australian citizens. It was a tragedy of such strange and brutal suddenness that it scarcely seemed real. Many of us asked how, in this day and age, could such a thing happen? As is often the way with shocking events, our collective reaction was one of grief and anger. An additional reaction, often from grieving loved ones, was to ask the question of whether something meaningful could be made of such pointless death? For the countries of those aboard MH17, particularly Australia, there was an opportunity to make meaning out of the meaningless. But what compounds this tragedy further, is that we missed this opportunity.
To be a good strategist – or a good statesman – one requires a degree of opportunistic pragmatism; a cunning creativity to pluck something practical out of even the most catastrophic events. Debates about culpability are secondary to the fact that scores of innocent foreign nationals were killed in a conflict they had nothing to do with. The conflict in the Ukraine has been, and will continue to be, a source of great destabilisation for European security. It has become the fulcrum of Russian-Western tensions and festers as a potential source of violent escalation. Yet, when the citizens of ten non-claimant states were killed as a result of this conflict, a window for peace opened briefly as the number of states involved in the conflict increased suddenly.
These states could have acted as neutral mediators with the simple aim of ending the violence that had pointlessly taken the lives of their citizens. In the immediate wake of the crash, as both Russia and the Ukraine scrambled to make sense of what was happening, a coordinated campaign to bring both parties to the table for negotiations would have been hard to refuse. If orchestrated through the United Nations' Security Council (upon which Australia sat at the time) it is hard to imagine even Russia vetoing such a motion given the international solidarity that this event garnered. By evading debates about blame, which have only compounded Russia's sense of embattlement and isolation, and instead arguing immediately for dispute resolution, the international community could have made hay of this tragedy.
Australia and the Netherlands were uniquely placed to lead in such an action. Both nations collaborated well in the wake of the crash as their collective stake in the disaster was large; Australia and the Netherlands had the 3rd and 1st largest number of deaths respectively. This, paired with each country's sophisticated police and recovery resources, allowed for them to act as the recovery coordinators; a role larger claimant-states such as Germany and Britain could not have undertaken given their animosities with Russia. Australia's UNSC seat was also a powerful platform from which more than just outrage could have been expressed.
The notion of Ukrainian-Russian peace talks being held in Canberra or Amsterdam may now seem fanciful, but, for a brief window of time, it could have been made a reality. To seize upon opportunities that emerge from catastrophes takes perspicacity, but also ambitious creativity. It is sad to think that in the wake of the MH17 disaster even our best diplomatic minds only had raw outrage and grief to offer. To be a proactive middle-power in a volatile world order we must be better than that.
William Stoltz is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Global Panorama (Flickr: Creative Commons)