Blaming for Dummies

Who is responsible for the downing of MH17, and how can we tell?

Almost as soon as it became apparent that someone shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17, the blame game began.  There are, of course, the usual crazy conspiracy theories.  Then there is the transparently politically motivated finger-pointing.  There are the predictable pundits and armchair experts.  Largely lost in the noise are the cautious few who insist that we don’t have all the relevant facts and have to wait and see.

Actually, we don’t have to wait and see.  There is plenty of information available on the basis of which to start assigning blame.  Most of it, in fact.  You just have to know how.

Let’s begin by noting that apportioning responsibility is a special case of determining causality.  For any event, we can usually distinguish three different kinds of cause.  The proximate cause immediately precedes it.  Intermediate causes set the stage for it.  Deep causes make the stage-setting possible.  Think of an explosive going off: the proximate cause is the completion of the circuit in the detonator; the intermediate cause is the fact that somebody connected the detonator to some explosive material; the deep causes include all of the research and knowledge that went into understanding and designing explosives. You need all three. Without any one, nothing happens.

We don’t bother asking who bears moral responsibility for an explosive going off if no evil comes of it. Nobody points the finger of blame at construction crews who blast rock for a highway. We assign blame when someone did or failed to do something as a matter of choice that resulted in harm.  Naturally, we adjust our assessment of blame depending upon whether the act in question violated some well-established rule or norm, whether it was avoidable, whether it was intentional, and whether the evil that followed from it was (or could have been) foreseen.

Now, with respect to the shooting down of MH17, there is little doubt that it was brought down by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile, and whoever pulled the trigger must clearly bear some of the blame.  At present we do not know who was involved on the ground, and we may never know.  No one wants to own this.  But all signs point toward ethnic Russian separatists acting independently or with the support of the Russian military.

How much blame rests with whoever fired the missile?  Some, but not all.  This was a tragic mistake.  No one had any incentive to bring down a passing civilian airliner.  Almost certainly the SAM crew thought they were shooting at a military target.  They may have thought this because they were insufficiently trained, because they had inadequate information, or because they were not using the equipment properly.  But there is no indication that the resulting harm was deliberate.  In a court of law, they would be found guilty of manslaughter, but not murder.

More to the point, no one would have been shooting SAMs at anything if Ukraine had not been in the throes of a civil war. We know what happens in war: innocent people get killed.  MH17 was one shocking and horrific example, and as far as we know the only one so far involving innocent people from so many far away countries. But whoever set the stage for this tragedy must bear a great deal of the moral responsibility—not only for the loss of these particular lives, but for putting at risk the lives of so many innocent people in Ukraine.

Where else do we look for culpability in addition to those who pulled the trigger?  One possibility is to reach all the way back into the deep causes.  There is a civil war in eastern Ukraine because Russians and Ukrainians have not gotten along very well for much of their deeply entwined histories. (Outsiders may perhaps be forgiven for thinking that this brings to mind once again what Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.”)  It would be interesting but for present purposes pointless to ask, “Whose fault is that?” Too much has happened between now and then to draw clear lines of culpability.

In any case, things were actually working fairly well in post-Soviet Ukraine. It may have been corrupt and inefficient, but Ukraine was well on its way to becoming a modern, well-functioning democracy of the kind that could reasonably hope to qualify for admission to the European Union someday.  It was making progress on the checklist of requirements, which included respect for human rights, protections for national minorities, and a uniform standard of good governance.  It was, in short, headed very much in a direction away from civil war.  It’s hardly convincing to blame people who died decades or centuries ago when ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians had already shown that they could get along when left to their own devices.

So we must look to intermediate causes.

Things started to go wrong on November 21 last year when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reneged on a commitment to sign a trade deal with the EU, opting instead for closer ties with Russia, triggering a wave of anger and frustration that resulted ultimately in the Maidan rebellion, Yanukovych’s ouster, his eventual replacement as president by Petro Poroshenko, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the outbreak of separatist violence in the Donbas region.

Who bears primary responsibility for this sequence of events?

Where you stand on that question depends upon where you sit. There are two main narratives.  The dominant narrative in Russia is that guilt lies with the “fascists” who overthrew a democratically elected government and the Western powers who allegedly encouraged them. This is a tortured tale. Much of what goes into this story is simply false.  Yanukovych was ousted not by fascists but by ordinary people who saw their hopes for a better future being dashed.  Western governments were obviously not particularly happy with Yanukovych and were mostly pleased to see the back of him, but it gives them far too much credit to say that they orchestrated any of the relevant events.

The other main answer lays the blame at the feet of Vladimir Putin, first for pressuring Yanukovych to kill the EU deal, then for engineering the secession of Crimea and its annexation to Russia, and finally for arming, supporting, and tacitly encouraging Russian nationalist separatists.

This answer is much more persuasive.

Ukraine would not be aflame today if Putin had not repeatedly and deliberately meddled in its internal affairs; if he had not blatantly violated a core principle of modern European international relations — namely, the inviolability of national borders; and if he had not treated Ukraine like a pawn in some anachronistic great power game. No one has more clearly or more effectively subverted Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, violated basic international norms, and put innocent lives at risk.  None of this was necessary.  It was all avoidable.  Most of it was intentional.  While the particular tragedy of MH17 might not have been foreseeable, tragedies of one sort or another were inevitable.  No one has more blood on his hands.