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How 'force drift' may have led to MH17 downing

COMMENT In the shadowy world of intelligence, there is an innocuous term known as ‘force drift’. It begins when an individual decides to carry out a small act of violence. He believes he is doing it for the greater good. He justifies it as morally necessary.

Therefore, over the passage of time, it becomes easier and easier to rely on violence. In steady increments, he escalates his use of it. After all, logic dictates, if some force is good, then more force is even better.

Eventually, the amount of violence will drift to ever dizzying levels. This individual is intoxicated by it. He loses his perspective. He loses control. Finally, the escalating force has become so great and terrible that it reaches a tipping point. It ends up becoming a Greek tragedy.

‘Force drift’ can be used to explain a myriad of atrocities that have happened in recent memory. The Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. The torture scandals out of Abu Ghraib. The Obama administration’s use of drone-strike programmes.

In each and every case, innocent blood has been spilled, and it has happened simply because those who practise violence have been unable to control their spiralling addiction to it.

They may claim that they are using force in the name of good. But, in the end, they only destroy whatever good it was that they originally claimed to defend.

Losing grip on Ukraine

Today, as Malaysians, the term ‘force drift’ will no doubt take on a more visceral and personal meaning. We can see it in relation to the crisis in Eastern Ukraine and the tragic shoot-down of Flight MH17.

Prior to this incident, not many of us could have located this country on the map. Few of us spared their troubles much thought. But now, it seems, we are obsessed with Ukraine. Its geopolitical complexities have become inexorably linked with our own.

It’s important to understand how we got here. More importantly, it’s important to understand why.

The misfortune all started in November 2013. Back then, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych made a controversial decision. He announced to his people that he would ditch an agreement to foster closer ties between Ukraine and the European Union. In its place, he would push ahead with an alliance with Russia.

Most Ukrainians were stunned by this development. Ever since Yanukovych won the presidency in 2010, it was common knowledge that he had taken Russian money and had nursed Russian sympathies.

But few, if any, expected him to so boldly go against the sentiments of Ukrainian citizens. For historical and practical reasons, most wanted closer ties with the West, not Russia, which they viewed as a threatening neighbour.

So Ukrainians rejected Yanukovych’s zero-sum game, and in a show of people power, they took the streets and expressed their fury. Alarmed, Yanukovych hastily passed security laws that made public assembly illegal.

The protestors were ordered to cease and desist and return to their homes. This undemocratic law only inflamed the situation further, and the anti-Yanukovych movement gained momentum. Riots broke out. Government buildings were seized and occupied.

Yanukovych had well and truly lost his grip on Ukraine.

The Russian connection

Over in Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin had been paying close attention to the events unfolding rapidly in Kiev. In recent years, he had been growing steadily more disturbed by the encroachment of Nato and EU influence on Russian interests in the region.

The wave of protests that threaten to unseat his ally in Kiev appeared to be yet another Western ploy to undermine Russia.

Convinced that he had to counter it, he made the decision to send Spetsnaz operatives into Ukraine. This would be a last-ditch attempt to prop up his ally, Yanukovych, and prevent Ukraine from sliding out of Russia’s grip and into the pro-Western sphere.

Putin’s operatives were steely and ruthless. These were battle-hardened men who had fought against the Muslims in Chechnya, committing genocide and rape with wild abandon. Their presence in Kiev would be a reflection of that.

They had no qualms about using automatic weapons on civilians, gunning them down even as news cameras in Kiev captured the horrific footage.

A lesser people would have been cowed by such aggression. But the Ukrainians were staunch, and they would not stop braving Russian bullets until Viktor Yanukovych was toppled. By January 2014, their goal had been achieved. Yanukovych was finally forced to step down from power, and he fled into exile in Russia.

Putin's retaliation

In the jubilant aftermath, when protestors stormed Yanukovych’s former official residence, they found half-destroyed documents. These were invoices and spreadsheets that indicated widespread corruption, as well as generous payoffs by shell corporations. Yanukovych, it would seem, had been Putin’s stooge for longer than anyone suspected.

At this juncture, the Ukrainian people deserved a happy ending. But, sadly, they would not get one. Even as a new transitional government took over in Kiev and promised reconciliation, Putin played hardball. His pride had been hurt, and worse still, his Western foes had just gained a new ally in Ukraine.

So Putin responded in the only way he knew how - he began massing troops on the Eastern Ukrainian border, where the Russian-speaking population had long expressed separatist sympathies.

And then, in an odd reversal of what anti-Yanukovych protesters had done, it was the turn of pro-Putin mobs to seize government buildings in Crimea and declare the territory a part of Russia. A provocative referendum to officially break away from Ukraine was to follow, sparking international condemnation.

Meanwhile, paramilitary action grew in intensity, and soon enough, everything from helicopters to cargo planes were being blown out of the sky by the separatists. Having secured Crimea, Putin’s next move was to punish the Ukrainians for their insolence. He did so over and over again, increasing the tempo of the hostility.

Why us?

As Malaysians, we paid scant attention to all this because the vast majority of the dead and wounded were Ukrainians. As far as the world was concerned, this was just an internal matter in another distant part of the world. It was certainly not a hot-button issue like, say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore we treated the crisis as easily dismissed. Easily ignored.

But then MH17 happened, and it hit us all like a traumatic shockwave. Why now? Why us? Who did we ever offend in that part of the world?

There are no easy answers.

Ultimately, the tragedy of all this is that Vladimir Putin probably didn’t intend to shoot down Flight MH17. Chances are, he didn’t even issue the executive order to do so. Nonetheless, by giving his operatives free rein to disregard international law and wage a dirty war, he bears the burden of responsibility.

He created the madness that almost certainly doomed the passengers aboard MH17.

Yes, this is ‘force drift’ at its most warped and cruel. So let there be no doubt: the missile that downed MH17 would never have been fired if Putin had respected his neighbour’s sovereignty to begin with.

Husbands. Wives. Fathers. Mothers. Sons. Daughters. I have no doubt that all of the people we have lost would still be alive today if there was no crisis in Eastern Ukraine.

JOHN LING is a Malaysian-born author based in New Zealand. You can find out about him and his work at