This was not the first time Ukrainians woke up to news of a fatal and suspicious plane crash. In 2014, a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet crashed in eastern Ukraine; a Dutch-led team of investigators concluded that it had been brought down by a Russian missile. To understand how Ukraine handled the crisis, we informally interviewed a dozen political insiders, journalists, experts and ordinary Ukrainians based in Kyiv in the past week to get the Ukrainian perspective — who we are not naming because they asked for confidentiality.
Both ordinary Ukrainians and local politicians told us they could not shed “the feeling that this was more than an aviation accident,” as one put it — not least because the crash came hours after Iran’s missiles struck U.S. targets in Iraq amid rising regional tensions. Their suspicions increased as Ukrainians learned that the crew was highly experienced; the plane was nearly brand new, delivered by Boeing in 2016, and had just been inspected on Jan. 6; and the Ukrainian Embassy in Tehran was hastily changing its statement about what was to blame.
What were the political dynamics in Ukraine?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, young and comparatively inexperienced on the international stage, had little room to maneuver. While Ukraine might be willing to engage diplomatically with its Western allies, its institutions aren’t necessarily ready to respond effectively as events hit.
These circumstances worried even the most seasoned Ukrainian politicians. They knew they had to tread lightly and not offend the Iranians, or their experts might not have access to the scene to gather information on the crash. Further, they knew they needed to stay on good terms with the United States and other Western partners, in order to share intelligence about the events.
This was difficult in part because, as we learned in our interviews, Ukrainian politicians had fewer intelligence sources and less incoming information than the others involved, such as the United States, Britain and Canada. One political insider told us that Ukraine’s “special services and the National Security and Defense Council had no or little information of the situation … and Foreign Ministry insiders were in a state of disorientation.” That is partly because of the fact that while their counterparts in the United States, Britain and Canada were already on high alert because of the Iranian missile attacks the night before, Ukraine wasn’t implicated in — or on alert because of — that crisis. What’s more, Ukrainian politicians were in the middle of their holidays, as Ukraine celebrates Christmas on Jan. 6 and 7. Finally, with the center of decision-making gravity on all issues international at the president’s office, the Foreign Ministry, with its more seasoned diplomats, was sidelined.
Second, in political science terms, there were extremely low levels of trust between the different international parties. Ukrainian officials were skeptical about the United States, given the events leading to President Trump’s impeachment; to Ukrainians, the administration did not seem to be a completely trustworthy partner. Nor did they fully trust Iran, perceived as a strong ally of Russia, which is still at war with Ukraine. The exception was Canada, which the Ukrainian government knew it could trust.
While Ukraine did not have the resources needed to negotiate with or pressure the different parties involved, it did have a high level of technical expertise, gained from investigating the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. And unlike the United States and Canada, Ukraine had maintained diplomatic ties with Iran, enabling Ukraine to send in its own experts to conduct an independent investigation. According to a statement released by Zelensky, that investigation “prevented Iran from hiding the truth.”
Some Ukrainians, especially those already opposed to Zelensky, critiqued their government’s handling of the situation, feeling that it did not react quickly enough, the people we talked to told us. As one official said, Ukrainians “were disappointed that their government was silent while leaders of other countries announced their conclusions about the reasons for the crash.” The crisis also overlapped with Zelensky’s vacation in Oman, which was criticized by his opponents as too lavish and poorly timed, given escalating international tension in the region.
Zelensky’s supporters were less critical and highlighted what they called “double standards” in public discourse about appraising his leadership, as opposed to that of the previous administration. One journalist told us that on social media, he found a generally positive assessment of the government.
Diplomatically, Ukraine handled itself well
Even though it was operating in a highly uncertain, low-trust and low-information context, from an international public diplomacy perspective, Ukraine seems to have done the right things diplomatically.
Its politicians did not use alarmist rhetoric, which could have further deteriorated the situation and lost them access to the wreckage. They were able to identify the best interlocutors in the investigation: Canada, Britain and Sweden, all strong allies. Their coordination with the Canadians was flawless, including steady and simultaneous release bilingually (in Canada, in English and French; in Ukraine, in Ukrainian and English) of information via coordinated tweets. And while Ukrainians privately negotiated with Iran to gain more access to the wreckage, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made public statements pressuring Iran to come clean — leading Iran to ultimately acknowledge that its own missiles had indeed shot down the Ukrainian airliner.
However, the Zelensky government may not have done enough to engage the Ukrainian population, which gave fodder to his “unrelenting opposition,” as one academic interviewed put it — just because, as one political insider acknowledged, “there was simply not enough public information.” Zelensky’s official statement addressing Ukrainians wasn’t released until three days after the tragedy.
Ukraine’s government exhibited prudence by refusing to reach conclusions without full data disclosure, insisting on an international investigation. Should any further crises arise, Zelensky’s cautious communication may prove to be a liability. During war and crisis, politicians often need to promptly and skillfully communicate not only with diplomats, but also with their own citizens.
Olga Onuch (@oonuch) is an associate professor (senior lecturer) in politics at the University of Manchester.