38 Australians Killed In Shootdown — Canberra Mulled Military Deployment To Ukraine After MH-17 Shootdown

On July 27, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was brought down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Out of these, 38 were Australians.

In an interview with the ABC political docuseries Nemesis, Malcolm Turnbull, the communications minister in the then Tony Abbott administration, said that the Prime Minister considered sending “a large military deployment” to Ukraine in response to the downing of the aircraft.

Abbott reportedly called former Australian Defense Force Chief Angus Houston in Kyiv at 4 am. The idea was unprecedented and would not have many takers in Abbott’s cabinet. “It was a genuinely crazy idea,” says Malcolm Turnbull.

“To send armed personnel … no one would’ve welcomed it, and particularly our Western allies would not have welcomed it. It showed, if you like, the elements of Tony that started to make me feel we had a very dangerous prime minister.”

Tony Abbott appointed Angus Houston as the special envoy to Ukraine, where he was entrusted with a particular task: to recover, identify, and repatriate the remains of Australian citizens who had been killed in an aircraft that was brought down using the Russian-supplied Buk surface-to-air missile defense system.

On his part, Houston told the media, “[Tony Abbott] was very determined to do whatever was needed to recover the remains of the Australians and repatriate them to their loved ones, and he had a great concern for the welfare of the families.” 

According to these surprising sets of admissions made by the top officials of the former administration, Abbott was adamant about getting Australian personnel to the wreckage site, even though it was in a danger-wrought separatist region allegedly supported by Russia.

The prime minister was reportedly furious about this needless and unprovoked killing, as are many Australians. He discusses the possibilities of how to react and ensure that the bodies are found with Houston over the phone in Kyiv, personally overlooking the Australian response to the aftermath of the incident.

“The two options under consideration were a police-led operation, which I strongly supported, and a military option,” Houston says.

The then deputy prime minister Warren Truss recalled,” In the early days, we didn’t know whether [the shooting down of MH17] was an isolated incident or whether it was indeed the beginning of some major assault.”

Houston patiently listened to the prime minister go over the possibilities of a military deployment and a police-led operation in the predawn hours of Kyiv. However, according to his admissions, he wasn’t entirely on board, mainly owing to the humongous risks involved in any such operation.

Mh-17 plane crash
File Image: Mh-17 Plane Crash

“It was going to be quite a large military deployment. I didn’t think a large military deployment would cut it in those circumstances with a huge force on the other side of the border only 30 kilometers away. I didn’t think that was a smart way to go,” Houston explained.

“The risk factor would’ve gone up substantially in terms of a miscalculation, a misunderstanding, the possibility of somebody inadvertently firing on our guys, and the thing escalating from there. I didn’t think it was worth the risk.” Nonetheless, Abbott received much credit for his leadership during the MH17 crisis.

However, the legacy was somewhat taken forward by the current Anthony Albanese administration. Three individuals implicated in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 were subjected to targeted financial sanctions and travel bans by the Australian government in June last year. 

Later, on July 17, the Australian government made a firm call to Russia, urging them to “take responsibility” for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

“Russia must take responsibility for the role it played in this horrific act of violence and stop harboring those who contributed to the downing of Flight MH17 and the murder of all on board,” Foreign Minister Penny Wong said.

Unforgettable Tragedy That Struck MH17

Months before the tragedy struck the unaware crew and passengers onboard the MH17, Russia had led a military operation in the eastern Ukrainian region. It annexed the Crimean peninsula, now home to the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters. 

After the annexation and Russian hostilities in the region, the separatists allegedly backed by Russia had taken control of Ukrainian government facilities in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas area, proclaiming the Donetsk and Luhansk republics to be sovereign states and starting a conflict with Kyiv.

With reports of intensive fighting, missile assaults, and other types of violence, the airspace where Flight MH17 was flying had become highly volatile and dangerous. 

Despite the risks, many commercial aircraft flew over the region before the tragedy. Some even upped their frequency of operation to meet the growing demand. However, the Malaysian airlines weren’t ready for what was coming for them. The rebels based in eastern Ukraine were alleged to have fired the missile that downed MH17.

Buk missile system Russia
Buk missile system, which was allegedly used to hit the MH17 aircraft.

The actual details of what happened to Flight MH17 are still being debated and disputed, with contradicting testimonies from various parties engaged in the incident. The aircraft was believed to be shot down by a Russian-made Buk missile system, also known as SA-11 Gadfly, a medium-range surface-to-air missile system.

Following an intense investigation, it was concluded that the missile that downed MH17 was fired from a launcher under the control of separatist militants in eastern Ukraine, which Russia backed. Tensions between Russia and the West increased due to the findings’ broad worldwide condemnation. 

In November 2022, a Dutch court sentenced former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinsky, as well as Ukrainian rebel commander Leonid Kharchenko, to life in jail in absentia for their roles in the murder of every person aboard the MH17. 

However, Russia has steadfastly denied any involvement in the downing of MH17. The incident has sparked renewed discussion and investigation into the security of commercial aircraft operating in conflict areas. It sparked demands for more responsibility and monitoring in the international armaments trade.

Almost a decade later, the risk of another such incident still haunts the world. For instance, in April last year, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that transferring MANPADS and ATGMs from Western nations to Ukraine could endanger global civil aviation safety.

The Ministry warned in no ambiguous terms that the MANPADS and ATGMs that Western countries delivered to Ukraine are spreading throughout the world, getting into the hands of terrorists, organized crime, and extremist organizations, and ending up in other combat zones.