It was noteworthy that President Obama received an initial report of the crash of an airliner Thursday during a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Malaysia Airlines lost contact with Flight 17, bound for Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, as it flew over Ukrainian territory Friday; the remnants were found in the Donetsk region, in an area that is formally part of Ukraine but is under the control of pro-Russian rebels. As soon as it occurred, the incident was immediately caught up in the fog of that conflict, as sources in Ukraine’s pro-Western government cast suspicion on the rebels or even Russian forces, while rebels and Russian-language sources blamed the Ukrainian military. The smoking wreckage of the jet showed that the conflict in eastern Ukraine, so easily viewed as merely part of a grand geopolitical power game between Moscow and the West, is fraught with danger for people elsewhere in the world.
The crash, of course, was tragic on its own terms. There were 283 passengers and 15 crew members aboard, all of whom are presumed dead. In a grim counterpoint to an earlier Malaysian airliner that vanished without a trace earlier this year, the fate of Flight 17 was evident all too quickly. News organizations sped to the crash site. Cognizant that images ricochet around the planet in minutes, photographers held back from sharing pictures that, they said, were too gruesome to share.
Beyond the human toll it took, the crash also hinted at a new threat to the safe passage of international jetliners, which is a crucial pillar of a globalized economy. It seemed conceivable Thursday — though far from certain — that informal military units had somehow been granted access to weaponry capable of shooting a commercial airline out of the sky.
Regardless, the political conflict in the region could well complicate efforts at a neutral investigation of the crash. Who are the proper authorities? Can investigators gain full access to the site and secure evidence? Pro-Moscow rebels reportedly took custody of the airplane’s black box, which the Ukrainian government wants. President Obama offered assistance in determining the cause of the accident; while American crash investigators bring world-renowned technical expertise, it remains to be seen whether all the powers at work in Donetsk would accept such US involvement.
The crash of Flight 17, and the machinations that immediately followed it Thursday, raised the possibility that the jostling for power in Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine is escalating beyond the control of the forces on the ground — or their supporters in Moscow, Kiev, and elsewhere in the world. In offering the world a glimpse of the abyss, Thursday’s crash revealed the urgency of easing tensions.