MH17: Merkel can help bring Russia to heel

NOW that Malaysia has secured the return of the bodies, the flight recorders and the promise of unfettered access to the crash site of MH17, thanks to Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak's brilliant negotiations with the Ukranian separatist rebels, the focus is now on getting the perpetrators who shot down the Malaysian airliner to own up.

Three nations with the most number of citizens killed - the Netherlands, Malaysia and Australia - have the strongest moral high ground to demand justice and to secure that important air space for all to use.

Fingers point at three likeliest culprits: Ukraine, the separatists and Russia. But of the lot, it is really Russia that is looking the most guilty. And even if no Russian pressed the button to launch the missile that brought down MH17, it is President Vladimir Putin who fanned the conflict in the region.

So if Malaysia wants justice, it needs help to bend Putin at the negotiating table. Our best bet lies with working with the Western powers which can put that kind of pressure on him.

All things considered, we should look to Germany. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel had called Najib to offer condolences and to assist in issues concerning the Boeing 777-200's destruction. It's an offer we should take up.

To the Germans, she is "mutter", but Merkel has also been described by Forbes magazine as the second most powerful person in the world, presumably after Barack Obama, and is exactly the ally we need to bring Russia to heel.

As for the most powerful one, we can put aside Obama because the United States is actually in no position to demand anything from Putin or the pro-Russian separatists. Not when it was a US warship that set the precedent of shooting down defenceless commercial airlines in a conflict zone.

This was the destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 which was on a routine flight to Dubai when it was shot down by the USS Vincennes in 1988, killing the 290 people on board.

Then US President Ronald Reagan claimed the warship was taking pre-emptive action to defend itself and blamed the Iranians instead.

But as Paul Koring wrote in the Globe and Mail on Monday, investigations revealed Flight 655 was transmitting the proper civilian identifier in an internationally sanctioned airway.

"There was no diving Iranian warplane except in the minds of excited US sailors in a darkened command centre," he added bitingly.

The US eventually paid millions in compensation to the families of the victims but Washington has never accepted full responsibility nor apologised.

And because of that, it has no right to make demands on Russia or the separatists.

As Koring also noted, in 1988, it was Washington in full denial, proclaiming its innocence and demanding that others be held accountable. This time, Putin is playing that role.

When Obama asked: "What exactly are they (Russia) trying to hide?", Putin shot back: "Nobody should and no one has the right to use this tragedy to achieve selfish political aims."

That's why we need someone like Merkel to help deal with Putin. She may be famously dull in style but she is steely in leadership. Her government knows exactly how he thinks.

It was his unbridled ambition and machinations that fuelled the conflict in Ukraine which caused the terrible tragedy.

That is what Merkel's own government spokesman Steffen Seibert will tell you. In a meeting in early July in Berlin with visiting senior editors from the Asia News Network, Seibert listed very clear reasons why Putin annexed Crimea in March and is supporting the pro-Russia separatists.

"He is driven by ambition to make Russia great; he is frustrated that the Russian economy is falling apart and he is obsessed with making Russia the same level as the United States," listed Seibert.

Neither does Putin see Ukraine as a sovereign nation nor Crimea a part of it.

"He (Putin) has said (Soviet leader Nikita) Khrushchev was drunk when he gave away Crimea to Ukraine (in 1954)," added Seibert.

So Putin acted with impunity and the world was quite helpless to stop him.

"Crimea is gone," said Seibert, "and nothing can be done but we have to stop Russia from further undermining Ukraine."

Yes, but talking and even more threats of sanctions haven't made much difference.

If anything, that part of the world got even more dangerous and volatile with the separatists getting their hands on really wicked and powerful weapons like the BUK missile launcher, believed to be used to down MH17.

Apart from finding out the truth and then getting justice or compensation, ultimately, the world needs to make secure vital airspace that thousands of commercial airlines use. That means a resolution to the Ukraine conflict.

If the EU hadn't been able to make much headway to rein in Putin before, MH17, in the saddest way, provides its leaders the opportunity to do so now. The US may have gotten away with it in 1988 but such acts of murder cannot be allowed to go unpunished in 2014.

Since Seibert said Merkel has forged "quite close" ties with Russia and has a good dialogue going with Putin, she can the lead in the talks on those issues related to MH17.

For all those seeking justice, Germany's "mutter" may be our best bet to pry it out of Russia and secure peace for Ukraine.

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