“War-what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” Edwin Starr sang it in 1970. His thesis is about to be proved again in Ukraine.
Ukrainian air space was abruptly shut down to civilian aircraft on February 24, according to Flightradar24. That was just hours before a Russian assault was launched on that country.
Earlier this week, Ukraine said that around ten airlines (including Lufthansa, KLM, SAS, and Air France) had stopped flying there amid warnings of an attack by Russian forces. But as late as February 22, Ukraine insisted its air corridors were still open and flying was safe.
While airlines will have to deal with longer flights and higher fuel consumption, the abrupt Ukrainian air space shut down may have come just in time to save the lives of hundreds of passengers. By closing its airspace just before Vladimir Putin launched his violent “peacekeeping” operation, Ukraine may have prevented the destruction of an aircraft by missile or cyber-attack,
The world has a short memory, but the so-called War in DonBas between Ukraine and Russia has been going since 2014. In July of that year, a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 flying from the Netherlands to Kuala Lumpur was hit by a missile over eastern Ukraine. It was flying at 33,000 feet, one thousand feet above the “exclusion zone’ set by the Ukrainian government. All 298 people aboard were killed.
So far, Ukraine’s sudden “notice to airmen” closing its airspace seems effective. When I checked FlightRadar’s on-screen map, there were just two aircraft in Ukrainian airspace. One was El Al LY29, which quit Ukraine airspace quickly after entering enroute from Tel Aviv to Toronto. Flightradar says that the El AL flight often passes through western Ukraine. El Al LY5, from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles instead routed around Ukraine, responding to the airspace shut down.
The standoff between Ukraine and Russia has finally grabbed the world’s attention. Yet the conflict has been going on since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine. At that time, pro-Russian separatists proclaimed two republics in eastern Ukraine adjacent to Russia, the Donetsk and the Luhansk People’s Republics.
The conflict has played out on the ground and in the skies as well. In 2014, Ukrainian aircraft carried troops or attacked rebels in the breakaway “republics.” In return, separatists destroyed a Ukrainian IL-76 transport carrying equipment and 49 personnel, all of whom were killed. The aircraft was targeted by a separatist with a MANPAD (Man-portable air defense system) surface-to-air missile.
Ideal for infantry or terrorists, MANPADS pose such a threat that even FedEx is developing a laser anti-missile system to protect its planes. But the shoulder-launched missiles only have an engagement range of about four miles.
To engage high-flying aircraft, the Russian-backed separatists apparently sought long-range surface-to-air missiles. A Buk SA-11 missile battery was driven in from Russia and lent to the rebels. Thinking they had locked in on a Ukrainian transport aircraft, the rebel crew launched a missile.
The unarmed and unsuspecting flight MH17 was hit in the cockpit by the powerful Buk ground-launched missile and fell to earth. Looting was reported among the bodies and wreckage.
With the disappearance of difference Malaysian airliner, mystery remains. Flight MH370, also a Boeing 777, dropped off the radar in 2014, taking 239 people to a presumed watery grave somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Eight years and more than $200 million later, searches have failed, although experts blame the pilot.
The only real mystery about Malaysia MH17 one is why the people, groups or state actors involved in the launch of the Buk missile have not been brought to justice.
In 2019, four individuals, three Russians and a Ukrainian, were charged with murder by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service in connection with the destruction of flight MH17. As The Independent put it in December 2021, “It is thought very unlikely that the accused will ever be seen outside Russia again.”
The DonBas conflict simmered after the MH17 tragedy, although more than 13,000 people have been killed and half a million displaced. Now, as Russia has recognized the breakaway republics and sent in troops to “protect” them, the region is under threat of total war.
Americans have so far been primarily concerned about the impact on energy prices and the crashing stock market.
But if the war or “peacekeeping mission” continues, it will have far greater impact on the fragile world aviation industry, just starting to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, that pales in comparison to the death, destruction and disruption that will impact people in Ukraine, Russia and throughout Europe.