Book Review: Flight MH17, Ukraine and the New Cold War by Kees van der Pijl

Kees van der Pijl (2018) Flight MH17, Ukraine and the New Cold War: Prism of Disaster, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 198.

Reviewed by T.J. Coles

Kees van der Pijl, a retired Professor at the University of Sussex in the UK, has written an important book concerning the geopolitical context in which the US and its allies encircle Russia. Readers expecting a detailed analysis of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 will be disappointed. The book is mistitled. Van der Pijl doesn’t analyse the tragedy until late into Chapter 4 of the short book. Rather, he uses the tragedy as a lens through which to analyse the broader geopolitical context. The book’s preceding chapters are of greater importance than the analysis of the passenger plane disaster. In the earlier chapters, van der Pijl lays out the stages of the worsening US-NATO behaviours, which are guaranteed to provoke defensive responses from Russia. In the context of propaganda, the book provides a well-researched counter-narrative to Russophobic tales spread by mainstream and alternative media. In the case of organisations like Bellingcat, the mainstream and the alternative reinforce one another’s claims. Van der Pijl describes it as a ‘propaganda war’ (p. viii).

The book begins by exploring the author’s personal interest in the tragedy. Being Dutch, van der Pijl notes that the majority of MH17 victims were from Holland. The plane took off from Amsterdam and was en routeto Kuala Lumpur. For reasons yet unknown, the plane was allowed to cross into Ukrainian airspace; Ukraine being a warzone (p. 1). It was shot down. The US, NATO, Europol’s Joint Investigation Team, and Western media in general, point the finger of blame at Russia, alleging that pro-Russian groups in Ukraine used a BUK missile to down the aircraft and kill everyone on board. Their narrative is supported by Bellingcat and other so-called alternative sources that promote the Western narrative. Van der Pijl likens the disaster to the 1983 Korean Airlines tragedy, when the Soviets shot down a passenger plane, mistaking it for a US spy plane (p. 2). 

The author has a slight tendency toward borderline apologia for Soviet and Russian state actions. For instance, NATO’s exercise Able Archer nearly led to nuclear war when the Soviets briefly mistook it for a real attack. Van der Pijl says that Able Archer frightened the Soviet chain-of-command into downing the Korean Airlines passenger jet (ibid). The author doesn’t make it clear that although the US and NATO created the conditions, the ultimate responsibility lies with the Soviets. To give another example, the author invokes the so-called Responsibility to Protect model (without referring to the doctrine by name) to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea (p. 101).

Van der Pijl argues that, more recently, the Dutch authorities and media have exploited the MH17 tragedy via ‘unrelenting demonisation of the figure of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin’ (p. vii). Some of the demonisation took place in the context of Euro-American efforts to bring Ukraine into their sphere of influence, such as the Dutch vote on the European Union’s Association Agreement with Ukraine (ibid).

In Chapter 1, van der Pijl grounds the book in Gramscian, Lockean, and Clausewitzian theory before framing the discussion of a ‘new Cold War’ (p. 8) as a class struggle. On one side is the US-led West, which tried to impose capitalism on the world in the first Cold War and now seeks to impose neoliberalism on the world at the expense of the sovereignty of other nations and even at the expense of the sovereignty of the individual. On the other side are the nation-states, including Russia and China, that retain controls over their sovereign economies; or at least try to.

Towards the end of the Soviet era, US economists successfully persuaded pro-US elements to use neoliberal ‘shock therapy’ on the some of the Soviet economies (p. 14). But since the year 2000, Vladimir Putin has reformed the Russian economy against neoliberalism and in favour of state controls. This exercise of sovereignty is at the expense of US corporations and the political elites who represent them. The US and NATO are ganging up on Russia in various ways. Russia’s next door neighbour Ukraine has experienced the kind of privatisation that so harmed the Soviet Union. Exiled Chechen terrorists are protected by the US and Britain. The author argues that actions such as the US’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 amount to a Third Cold War (pp. 19, 21). 

Chapter 2 concerns the political events in Ukraine that led up the civil war, beginning 2014. Van der Pijl points out that a significant percentage of Ukrainians are ethnically Russia, an important point seldom raised in Western media (p. 40). US- and allied-backed Ukrainian, anti-Russian nationalists have worked with and often consisted of anti-Semitic, Russophobic white supremacists who openly discuss ethnic cleansing. To give some examples: The Svoboda party won 10.4% of the vote in the 2012 elections (p. 71). Its leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, won a seat in the parliament, berating what he called the ‘Muscovite-Jewish mafia’ (p. 44). Protestors at Maidan included neo-Nazis under the Right Sector umbrella: the Social-National Assembly, Trident, UNA-UNSO, and White Hammer (p. 79). Ironically, many of these neo-Nazis were trained by or at least linked to Israeli special forces (p. 80). The Minister of Internal Affairs under the new pro-EU-US government, Arsen Avakov, openly called for ‘ethnic cleansing’ (p. 103).

Chapter 3 examines how these protests, which included agents of influence working for the US and its allies, developed into an undeclared policy of regime change. The broader argument, that Ukraine has long been a proxy battleground for US vs. Russian influence, is conveyed with considerable skill. Some of the more specific events taken at face-value are more questionable. For example, in February 2014, 48 protestors were allegedly murdered by pro-Russian, Ukrainian government snipers. Van der Pijl claims  that the EU’s High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, ‘confirm[ed] the suspicion the sniper fire came from the opposition’ (p. 80), meaning that it was a false-flag carried out by anti-Russian, pro-US-EU forces.

But the claim about Ashton is not true. Ashton was told by Estonia’s Foreign Minister, Urmas Paet, that a mutual acquaintance named ‘Olga’, who headed an unnamed civil society organisation, had seen evidence suggesting that the opposition had murdered the demonstrators in an effort to blame the pro-Russian government. This is credible, but Ashton certainly did not confirm this. She merely replied: ‘I think we do want to investigate’. To give another example: Later in the book, the sole source for an important allegation, that NATO’s electromagnetic exercises had caused dozens of passenger planes in Europe to lose contact with air traffic control, is an article by Wayne Madsen in the blog, Political Vel Craft (p. 181).

Chapter 4 deals with the downing of MH17. Initially, the National Defence and Security Council of Ukraine claimed that Russia was responsible for the tragedy. It was then alleged that Russian-suppliedweapons had been used to bring down the passenger jet. The author raises the plausible prospect that either NATO war games had brought down the plane—the tragedy having coincided with NATO’s exercise Breeze 2014—or else it was an intentional false-flag designed to further demonise Russia in the eyes of Western media. Reportedly, the CIA and Academi (a private mercenary firm, formerly the notorious Blackwater) were operating in Ukraine around the time of the NATO drills (p.103). The author points to disparities in NATO’s weapons vs. the MANPADS of the insurgents (pp. 111-12), suggesting that only state-military firepower could have destroyed the jet. 

The most compelling evidence that US, NATO or allied forces were responsible for the downing of the jet are BBC Russia reports, which quoted local eyewitnesses who said that they saw jets circling shortly before MH17 was shot down (pp. 122-23). It is also interesting that another Malaysian airliner (MH370) also went down in March 2014 in an apparently unrelated tragedy, in which military exercises were possibly involved (p. 116). Malaysia infamously established a war crimes commission to indict US and British leaders for their roles in invading Iraq in 2003, along with other crimes. Van der Pijl speculates that a hidden motive for downing two Malaysian airliners was revenge for the war crimes commission (ibid).

Despite some obvious flaws, the book is an important contribution to the events leading up to the coup and civil war in Ukraine. But more than this, it demonstrates that the post-Cold War era has been dominated by an ever-expanding US resisted by only a small number of states. The book is a valuable alternative to the anti-Russian agenda of Western media.  

Dr. T.J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Human Wrongs(iff Books) and Privatized Planet(New Internationalist).