Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17). It will, of course, be an important and solemn day for the families of the 38 Australians killed. For Australian Federal Police (AFP) personnel involved it will be a time to reflect on what was a demanding and complicated operation.
The passage of time presents us with an opportunity to reflect on Australia’s policy response to the tragedy. Australians are avid travelers, so there’s a chance that our citizens could be involved in a similar incident in the future. But each situation will be different and have its own constraints. Looking back at MH17, there are lessons about the risks involved when Australia moves to assist foreign governments with the identification and repatriation of our citizens.
On 16 July last year the Ukrainian Armed Forces commenced an offensive against a Russian Federation-backed separatist group, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), with the aim of cutting off the DPR supply lines. Within hours, a major battle (The Battle of Shakhtarsk Raion) broke out in the area surrounding the city of Donetsk. At the time the Russians had amassed a large mechanised force, supported by Special Forces units and strategic direct and indirect fire assets in the Ukrainian–Russian border region.
The next day MH17, a scheduled service from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was struck by a Buk missile as it flew over the DPR-held Ukrainian region of Donbass. It crashed, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members. (The Buk is a self-propelled surface-to-air missile system designed and produced by Russia.)
Australia’s policy responses to MH17 were focused on achieving four objectives: ‘to retrieve the bodies, to secure the site, to conduct the investigation and to obtain justice for the victims and their families’.
The dispatch of AFP officers to work with Dutch police in Ukraine to recover and identify crash victims under the banner of Operation ‘Bring Them Home’ resonated with many Australians. While a number of options were considered by the Abbott government, sending in the AFP was less likely to inflame an already volatile region.
Unlike past deployments to places such as East Timor, Solomon Islands and Afghanistan, the AFP operated in a war zone without the physical presence of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) on the ground; that is, no troops and no infrastructure. The AFP also lacked a secure position to return to at the end of each day. As can only be expected of a police force, the AFP were neither equipped nor trained to operate in such a war zone.
The Dutch and Australian police group were lobbed into the middle of a battlefield of ferocious intensity. The group was under constant pressure from Australia, Ukraine, the Netherlands, the European Union, DPR and the media to quickly recover the victims. The AFP made numerous efforts, mostly without joy, to enter the forward edge of the Shakhtarsk Raion battlefield to access the crash site, more often than not exposing AFP officers to direct and indirect fire.
Given the scale and intensity of the battle around, and often on, the crash site, it’s arguable whether there was ever a chance that group could secure the scene.
There are some additional facts worth highlighting. At the time of the MH17 crash the Organization for Security and Co-operation Europe had a Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine that was regularly facilitating dialogue among all parties in the conflict. Ukraine had a fully operational government and bureaucracy. The investigation was delegated to the Dutch Safety Board on 23 July 2014 on the basis that two-thirds of the deceased were Dutch citizens and the Ukrainian government was a party of the civil war. Whilst the crash site was predominantly controlled by DPR, they also had sufficient capacity and willingness to recover bodies. And in the end it was the DPR that recovered most of the bodies.
In Canberra, Russian expansionism in Ukraine was a strategic development worth noting but peripheral to the core interests of Australia’s intelligence and policy elite. Anyone who would have suggested that the AFP should be sent to a warzone in Eastern Europe would have been branded crazy.
Opinion polls from the time indicate that the Australian electorate responded positively to the government’s policy response. But was there a need for such numbers of Australian personnel to be involved in a recovery operation on Ukrainian soil? In light of Ukrainian and DPR abilities, Australia didn’t need to directly participate in the repatriation of our citizens; the forward deployment of the AFP into Ukraine was a risky and unnecessary overstep. The Australian contingent was a long way from home, trying to negotiate with Russian proxies and with limited regional influence.
There are other ways this could have gone down. In an act of terrorism on 26 June this year Seifeddine Reszgui shot and killed 38 people on a Tunisian beach, including 30 British citizens. In a textbook repatriation operation, British officials transported the victims home via military aircraft. The British government offered assistance, but Tunisia maintained full control of the policy response to the incident. With the Tunisians taking the lead, Britain contributed to the joint investigation and provided specialist investigative support.
Had a commercial jet been shot down in the Asia–Pacific, the situation would have been different. Our longstanding partnerships and cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief would mean we would be well placed to work actively and alongside local authorities. Eastern Europe is an entirely different kettle of fish.
That no AFP were wounded or killed during the operation is a testament to both their professionalism and their luck. We should be cautious about using the response to MH17 as a model or precedent for future government policy in these kinds of situations. While Australia had a national obligation to bring its citizens home, the large deployment of AFP personnel into a war zone stepped beyond the boundaries of normal response standards, creating a potentially dangerous policy precedence in the process.