National Security & Defense

MH17 and the Downing of American Leadership

Recovery crews at the crash site of MH17. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty)

Under foot, bulbous fragments of melted metal litter the black earth, and a faint but evil smell still hangs in the air — a mixture of aviation fuel and decaying human bodies.” So wrote Roland Oliphant in The Telegraph July 17.

Aircraft wreckage washed up on Reunion Island, putting the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared on March 8, 2014, back in the headlines. Defined by conflicting information, the mystery of MH370 is a magnet for theories of all kinds.

Nevertheless, this news about the missing MH370 is inconsequential compared with new developments surrounding MH17, a plane shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. It quickly seemed likely that Russia was heavily involved. And now, a year later, the consensus of Western intelligence services, independent investigators, and two ongoing Dutch-led investigations appears to affirm that assessment: MH17 was downed by Russia-aligned rebels using an advanced Buk missile system.

Russia is embracing its KGB protocol: furiously denying culpability while having media ‘friends’ push Putin’s propaganda.

Russia’s actions clearly suggest its involvement. Last week, railing against “aggressive propaganda,” Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution to establish an international tribunal to try those accused of downing MH17. Countering the international criticism that followed, Russia is embracing its KGB/FSB “active measures” protocol: furiously denying culpability while having media “friends” push Putin’s propaganda. This propaganda centers on counter claims that Ukraine’s government brought down MH17. Yet it’s hard to blame President Putin for operating in a wilderness of mirrors. After all, the Russian leader is confident that his only possible challenger over his MH17 veto — the United States — won’t confront him.

RELATED: The Russian Bear and the Chinese Dragon

Russian activities around the world attest to Putin’s confidence. Recently, for example, Russia announced it would modernize some elements of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system that it will soon send to Iran. This S-300 delivery reveals Russia’s increasing disregard for American deterrent power. Unfortunately, Russia isn’t alone in viewing America as a passive power. As we see in China’s cyber war and its expansion in the South China Sea, Beijing is also testing American patience, which is apparently limitless.

#related#It’s for these reasons that we must pay close attention to what happens next with the MH17 investigation. In international politics, American responses matter. America cannot achieve its goals unless its pursue U.S. interests vigorously. Just as a businessman seeks to take advantage of a gap in the market, or an athlete searches for an opponent’s weakness, America’s enemies will fill the vacuum left in the wake of American retreat. The consequences are all around us: Russia is apparently now free to down a passenger jet and to give Iran the means to down American military jets.

And so, just as America’s credibility in the Middle East is scorched alongside the chlorine-filled lungs of Syrian civilians, America’s standing vis à vis Putin is undermined by our acquiescence to the massacre of all those aboard MH17.

Still, at least we know who killed Cecil the lion.

— Tom Rogan is a writer and a panelist on The McLaughlin Group. He tweets @TomRtweets. His homepage is

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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