BERLIN – If the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 fails to result in much tougher sanctions against Russia, there’s a potentially unpleasant explanation: The most powerful Western countries didn’t have enough of their own citizens on board.
Time and again, research has shown that people are more interested in the travails of those they consider to be their own kind. Back in 1986, William Adams of George Washington University showed that on U.S. television networks, an earthquake in Italy received 7.6 minutes of airtime per 1,000 deaths, while an earthquake in Indonesia got only 0.04 minutes. In the Ukrainian conflict, Western media have paid much more attention to the victims of the plane crash than to the combatants and civilians who die every day on the ground.
The passenger manifest lists 193 nationals of the Netherlands, 28 Malaysians (not counting the 15 crew, who all came from Malaysia), 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, 10 U.K. nationals, four Belgians, four Germans, three Filipinos, and one person each from Canada and New Zealand.
Not surprisingly, the Dutch media have been particularly vocal in calling for military intervention or at least harsh sanctions against Russia. On a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the treatment of the bodies “revolting” (they were packed into plastic bags and dumped unceremoniously on garbage trucks after days of lying in a field in the July heat). Rutte warned Putin he had a “last chance” to show he was willing to help. Still, the prime minister was forced to be cautious because the victims’ bodies were still in the hands of pro-Russian rebels. He hasn’t spearheaded any European efforts to punish Russia for fueling the conflict that led to the downing of the plane.
Malaysia, the second-most-affected nation, has been more effective in getting results. Its prime minister, Najib Razak, had no qualms about negotiating with rebel leaders such as Alexander Borodai, who calls himself the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk republic. The rebels handed over victims’ bodies by sending the train carrying them to Ukrainian-controlled Kharkiv and released two “black boxes” from the downed jet to a Malaysian delegation, whose leader raised some eyebrows by referring to Borodai as “his excellency.” That approach worked better than angry calls to the Kremlin ever could: As political leaders should understand by now, Putin does not fully control the rebels, even if he has funded and armed them.
The other nations whose citizens died in the crash reacted more or less in direct proportion to the number of “their” victims. Australia proposed a United Nations Security Council resolution, which passed unanimously on Monday, calling for the warring sides to give experts access to the crash site and preserve its integrity. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron called on Europe to impose “hard-hitting sanctions” on Russia, but he never specified what his country was willing to do, calling instead on France to stop the delivery of two helicopter-carrying warships to Russia. French President Francois Hollande, whose country had no citizens on the downed plane, said the first Mistral warship would be delivered as planned in October, and the delivery of the second one would depend on the level of sanctions in force when it is finished.
Putin, who still won’t admit any guilt in the tragedy, may yet get off relatively lightly. Neither the Dutch nor the Malaysians have the political clout to force harsh sanctions. Other countries might not be affected enough to create the momentum needed for tough action. Thanks to a perverse kind of geographical bias, the downing of MH17 won’t put an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The battle will drag on, causing more tension between Russia and the West, probably until the Ukrainian Army finally crushes the rebels.
Bloomberg View contributor Leonid Bershidsky is a Berlin-based writer and author of three novels and two nonfiction books. He was the founding editor of Russia’s top business daily, Vedomosti, and the first publisher of the Russian edition of Forbes.