At 4:00am local time on September 1, 1983 Korean Airlines Flight 007 took off from Anchorage for the last leg of its flight from New York to Seoul. Not long into the flight an issue with the navigation system nudged the 747’s course to the west, finally bringing it into the Soviet Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Just under six hours after it left Anchorage a Soviet interceptor climbed into position behind it and fired a single missile, smashing the airliner and all 269 people on board into the icy water of the North Pacific.
The US government’s response was rapid. Within hours Secretary of State George Schultz held a press conference revealing details of what had happened and denouncing the Soviet government in the strongest terms. Days later President Reagan referred to it as a “massacre” and “a crime against humanity”. Right from the start there was no doubt about the position of the USA; even at the tensest point of the Cold War the administration as willing to stand up and lay the blame squarely on the perpetrators in the Kremlin.
Now fast forward almost 31 years. At 12:14pm on July 17, 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 takes off from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport bound for Kuala Lumpur. On board are 283 passengers – mostly Dutch – and 15 crew. Three hours later all communications from the 777 abruptly stopped and it went into a steep dive, crashing near a village in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Donetsk is one of the areas occupied by ethnic Russian separatists who’re being supported by Vladimir Putin, and that support includes access to modern Russian weapons. One of those weapons is the 9K37 Buk surface to air missile, NATO codename SA-11 GADFLY. One thing Russia has always been good at is surface to air missiles, and the Buk is one of the best in the world. It can reach up to 46,000 feet and hit targets 20 miles away, and is agile and accurate enough to destroy cruise missiles and precision guided bombs. It’s now known that one of those missiles was fired at the hapless Boeing as it transited Ukrainian airspace. Against a missile like that a civil jetliner has no chance, and MH17 was torn apart by the Mach-3 weapon.
It’s obvious that the missile crew had Russian help, because no bunch of separatist rebels could master such a sophisticated system so quickly. Just like when KAL007 went down in the Pacific, the blame for this incident lies firmly in the walled fortress beside Red Square. But what has the US government done this time?
The only official response from Obama last Thursday was to briefly mention the atrocity during a statement about domestic transport policy. Since then there’s been a sporadic trickle of weak, non-committal comments. The whole issue is being skirted, with weak references to Putin not exercising control and requests for a ceasefire. He won’t even come out and say that Russia is responsible for this.
When KAL007 was destroyed the USSR was at the height of its military power, a genuine threat to US national security that controlled the largest military machine in the history of the world. Now Russia’s “defense” budget is a tiny fraction of the USA’s. Putin is angry and aggressive, but we have nothing to fear from him. So why is the government pussyfooting around instead of telling him to get out of Ukraine and stay out?