Socialist Worker

Imperialist rivalry is to blame for MH17 plane deaths

by Tomáš Tengely Evans
Issue No. 2413

Part of the memorial to the dead at Amsterdam airport

Part of the memorial to the dead at Amsterdam airport

Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down in eastern Ukraine above territory held by pro-Russian separatists on Thursday of last week. 

The disaster left 289 passengers dead, the latest victims of the inter-imperialist conflict between the US and Russia. Western leaders piled on condemnation last weekend. John Kerry, US secretary of state, warned that everything “except American troops” is now on the table. 

Even German foreign minister Frank-Walter Stein said, “Moscow may have its last opportunity to show that it really is interested in a solution”. 

In reality the West isn’t concerned about the loss of life. Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister, was quick to warn the separatists not to “use the bodies as pawns.”

But that’s precisely what the West has been doing in order to gain the upper hand against Russia. The tragedy came days after the US imposed tougher sanctions on Russia.

The US had already imposed sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs, but the new sanctions target strategic firms by cutting off access to US capital markets. 

They include Russia’s largest oil producer Rosneft, second largest gas producer Novatek, and its third largest bank Gazprombank. 

The European Union (EU) has up until now been against “tougher” sanctions. Its southern members, such as Italy and Bulgaria, are dependent on Russian energy imports.

Russia is also one of the EU’s main trading partners and most importantly Germany has invested heavily in Russia during the last few years.

Now many EU leaders have been pushed to “talk tough” and threaten tougher sanctions. Throughout the crisis US and EU leaders have been out to cynically protect their imperialist and business interests. This latest development could force Russia and the separatists onto the backfoot.


The Ukrainian government’s “Anti-terrorist Operation” has taken back some separatist-held towns. This is partly because powerful oligarchs in the east, who are usually pro-Russian, came out actively in support of a united Ukraine. 

But it has exposed the fact that the separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” does not have a mass base. There was heavy fighting in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk as Socialist Worker went to press. 

Yet Russia still maintains its occupation of the Crimea. And tougher sanctions could damage the weak European recovery. The root cause behind the Ukrainian crisis is imperialist  rivalry and competition between oligarchs. 

The oligarchs in the east are primarily tied to Russian markets, while in the west they want greater integration into Western markets. 

Russia and the US have backed different oligarchs in order to dominate Ukraine and project their influence in the region. And both sets of oligarchs and imperialist powers have fostered nationalist divisions between Ukrainian and Russian speakers and Tartars in the Crimea. 

Russia wants a weakened Ukraine that is not in the West’s orbit, but does not want a full blown invasion. That’s why it supported the separatists, but hasn’t annexed more territory. 

It’s the imperialist rivalry between the US and Russia that is responsible for the airline disaster. Talk of imposing tougher sanctions on Russia will only perpetuate and escalate the conflict. That will cause more deaths in the future.

Passengers are put at risk for pursuit of profit

It’s not the first time innocent passengers have been killed in a warzone—nor is it surprising. 

The Ukrainian government declared a “no fly zone” following the tragedy, shutting down its airspace to passenger airliners. 

Yet major airline companies were more than happy to fly through Ukrainian airspace before flight MH17 was shot down. Ukraine sits below the major trunk routes from Europe to Asia.

If companies were forced to divert traffic, it would have meant spending more on fuel, cutting their profits. Flights continued throughout the crisis. The Crimea was only put off limits because authorities were not sure who was responsible for air traffic control after the Russian annexation.  

This isn’t anything new. Airline bosses are more than willing to put lives on the line in order to protect profits. 

When fighting raged in Afghanistan and Iraq the world airline giants made sure that it was business as usual. 

They continued to fly over both countries. The US has its own history when it comes to civilian airliners. The US military ship Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner with two missiles killing all 290 passengers. 

This happened against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war that raged between 1980 and 1988 when the US was backing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The US has never officially apologised. 


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