Foreign Policy

The Game Changer that Wasn’t – The Downing of MH-17

by Simon Leitch*

Brisbane, August 31, 2014 (Alochonaa): Earlier in the year, in successive articles, I predicted the path towards Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory, and outlined reasons why the EU or NATO would do little to stop Russian interference in Ukraine. Such predictions were easy. It didn’t take a genius to work out that Crimea was gone from the moment Russian troops arrived in force, that sanctions against Russia would be few and far between, or that Putin would not care about sanctions or impotent and vague threats from abroad. Indeed the Ukraine crisis was hardly a crisis at all, as crises almost invariably need to have an element of suspense, surprise and instability; Ukraine, as far as I could tell, had none of these elements after the initial Russian move into Crimea.

Then came the MH-17 disaster with all its surprise, grief, outrage and moralizing and, for a brief moment, it seemed that the crisis was back on; Ukraine mattered again. Since it carried a large number of people from many states it generated huge media and public interest across the world and, to an extent, it has become the defining event of the current Ukraine crisis. Forget Crimea, for that is long gone, it is now MH-17 which dominates the narrative of the crisis. Indeed, the media pundits largely assumed that the shoot down was a transformative event, one that would see the complicated and inconsequential troubles of Ukraine finally become something of substance for those distant countries which were not even daring enough to sanction Russia or its leadership group.

Putin Coin

The Crimea Annexation Coin… a 1kg silver coin specially minted on the orders of President Putin to celebrate the annexation of Crimea earlier this year (Source: Google Images)

A Defining Moment?

Journalists and many experienced analysts lined up to say that this was one of “those moments”, that we would be able to divide the crisis into “before MH-17” and “after MH-17” phases. This tragic event would be the moment which we would look back on and say “the insurgency was lost here”. Specifically, the EU, NATO, the USA or some other vague collection of countries would suddenly come up with a solution to the crisis purely because of the shock of foreign civilian casualties, whilst Russia, isolated, morally weakened, and generally feeling that it had overstepped the mark, would need to call an end to the crisis and make the insurgents pack up and stop fighting. After all, how could Putin let such carnage continue?

Contributing to the slaughter of Ukrainians and Russians to score domestic political points was one thing; hence the glacial pace of EU and NATO responses to Russian initiatives and the obvious lack of interest in spilling Western blood for Ukraine’s future, but this was different. These were foreigners, civilians, children, doctors, families, even a senator. It was, as the pundits cried, a potential “game changer” in Ukraine, and Putin was now sure to lose. Putin would now need to actively assist with the crash investigation because other he would look bad in the eyes of the world (a fact which would somehow loom large in the mind of a Russian oligarch who thrives on adversarial politics).

Donetsk air strike

Scenes like this reverberate across Ukraine as the Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces continue their battle for eastern Ukraine. (Source: Google Images)

Now here we are, a month later and, yes, some new sanctions have been put in place, and, yes, the insurgents have lost some ground. However, the insurgency continues, and Russia has issued counter-sanctions instead of backing down. Far from being a game changer, the MH-17 crash has merely marked another incremental step in the deteriorating Russia-West relationship and that might have happened anyway. An obvious question arises; why was this not a game changer given all the international outrage?

What really is happening

Simply put, public outrage and politicians engaging in moralizing aren’t actually the game changers. Game changing events are those which skillful politicians can exploit to alter a contest. Putin exploited the fall of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine, and NATO, the USA, the EU, or even small players could have exploited the fall of MH-17, but they did not. It appears Western leaders are still either very risk-adverse in their Ukraine policies or they literally believed that someone called “Putin” would suddenly have a change of heart, help out with the crash investigation, call off the rebels, absorb domestic political costs and back down. Good would simply triumph because it must.

Ignoring the issue of whether Russia, or someone called “Putin”, actually has the practical ability, political incentives or moral character to call an end to the fighting, MH-17 was clearly an opportunity missed. It is a reminder that the problem with game changing events is that you actually have to do something to exploit it. The event itself doesn’t change the game, people’s responses do. Transformative events are only transformative because they are used to build political support for actual action, to undermine or transcend resistance, to open up new political possibilities and make people endure more costs than they otherwise would. A game changer would have been sending a powerful NATO team to the crash site under a Ukrainian invitation, not merely saying that “Putin must facilitate access” simply because doing otherwise is poor form.

Julie Bishop at UNSC

Australia helped lead the initial internatonal response to the MH17 incident. Arguably this response has stalled, squandering the chance to make MH17 a ‘game-changer’ (Source: Google Images)

With or without MH-17 the fundamentals of the Ukraine crisis remain unchanged, so the lack of daring on the part of Western leaders is no surprise. Ukraine is still far away; the Russian military is still a good deterrent for NATO’s casualty adverse members; Western foreign policies are still overextended by fears of instability in the Middle East and East Asia; and Western states must still act and assume a good deal of risk if they want to inject themselves more openly into defending Ukraine. The question now is, if the insurgency seems to be sputtering to an end will Russia be willing to embark on a new round of game changing initiatives, like sending in “peacekeepers” or defending some “aid convoys”. Unlike NATO or the EU, Russia is willing to seize the initiative to defend its Ukrainian interests. Western states, it seems, just hope the game will change, simply because it must.

*DrSimon Leitch is the Editor in Chief,  Foreign Policy and International Affairs,Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University.  His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

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