Regardless of who shot down flight MH17 and taking into account that (non-civil) planes had been shot down before, is Ukraine in part responsible for allowing civil planes to fly over a war zone?

It is my understanding (correct me if I am wrong) that the US had forbidden all American airlines overfly that zone and the EU had recommended airlines to take alternatives routes (it seems to me that the EU can only recommend, but not force, airlines to follow a route in areas that do not belong to the EU). In fact, many airlines such as Air France and Lufthansa were avoiding overflying that area.

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    What makes you think Ukraine (or anyone else) is supposed to be "responsible"? They have disclosed the information that there were SAMs being used. That is their ownly responsibility.
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 0:09
  • @DVK I'm just asking. One possible answer is "not responsible at all". Anyhow, I didn't know that they had disclosed that. Thank you for the information +1. Although I'm not saying I agree with you in that that was their only responsibility.
    – drake
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 0:22
  • This is an opinion-based question. WE can ask why MH17 wanted to take that route knowing it was in the war zone.
    – r13
    Commented Oct 24, 2021 at 14:32

2 Answers 2


Conflict doesn't mean isolation

The civilian aviation response to military conflict doesn't not usually mean complete avoidance or 'closing of skies'. Most conflicts don't involve air-to-air warfare, and civilian flights have routinely been sent over conflict zones where combat is happening on the ground, as long as they are high enough.

Height matters

What people mean when they say 'rebels firing SAM to shoot stuff down' is something like this.

Stinger SAM missile

They are reasonably available to guerilla fighters, and small bands can successfully use them to attack low altitude targets such as helicopters or planes near airports. However, airliners can easily be made immune to this by posting minimal height restrictions, as Ukraine had done in this case - aircraft flying at 33000 feet are completely immune to such weapons, they are significantly out of range.

However, the MH17 was hit by something like this: Buk launcher

Historically, 'conflict zones' did not involve threat from such devices to civilian airliners. They generally are not available to guerilla forces, these devices are heavy divisional level military equipment. They are produced in limited quantities and (unlike shoulder-launched missiles) every single one of them can be accounted for and not 'misplaced', and they require a specially trained crew to operate - which makes it less likely that they've been bought or stolen, but rather acquired together with their crew from an army; in which case the shooters weren't 'rebel fighters' but rather soldiers (originally?) employed by one of the two state armies.

In short, in this case the threat to planes from a conflict zone suddenly became significantly different than it usually is. Pilots have been routinely flying at such altitudes over Iraq and Afghanistan during military operations - but now the combatants in eastern Ukraine have more advanced equipment than any other insurgency ever.

  • Thanks. Why did American and (at least, most) European airlines were not using that route (even at high enough altitude)? Why did the US government and EU describe this route as dangerous?
    – drake
    Commented Jul 20, 2014 at 19:44
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    @drake US government and EU did not describe this route as dangerous - FAA had published restrictions on flying over Crimea, but not about the MH17 path, these were valid paths according to the authorities. Some airlines were flying over there, some were not.
    – Peteris
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 6:01
  • Thanks +1. Then the information I read was wrong. Those airlines that were not flying over there did so because of security reasons, right? I read that no American airline, nor Lufthansa, nor Air France were taking that flight path, is this true?
    – drake
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 6:47
  • +1 for the pictures and explanation. I knew that it was a bigger thing than a man-carried rocket, but I was picturing a portable launcher rather than an actual vehicle.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 18:21
  • +1 I've flown on passenger flights over Afghanistan a number of times when travelling to India and haven't been shot down yet. Commented Oct 24, 2021 at 17:55

Your question must be inspired by recent Putin's words when he said that a country is always responsible for air incidents over its territory. By that logic, FAA of U.S. are responsible for 9/11 incident, British air control — for Lockerbie incident of 1988, and so on. I can't either recall russians took responsibility on Polish President's jet crash near Smolensk in 2010.

To directly answer your question:

  1. It is not a war zone. Russia's war against Ukraine has never been formally declared.

  2. This article in "New York Times" says that several hours before the incident, Russia's air traffic control has closed more than a dozen airways at various elevations on the way of the route of Flight 17. If proven by the investigation, this may be considered an evidence that Russia has forced Flight 17 to pass through a dangerous zone.

  3. There are quite a few zones of conflicts all over the world. Consider Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Gaza, Sri Lanka, and more. The air traffic over these territories is normal or nearly normal.

Yet another problem is that only Russia is "smart" enough to equip its terrorists with heavy SAM missile systems able to hit planes at 22km/72kft altitudes ("Bouk-M1").

  • Thanks. It wasn't inspired by that. I didn't know Putin had said that. Several planes had been shot down in that area, regardless of whether or not it's officially a war zone. I'm not asking about the accountability of those who shot down the plane or those who provided them with weapons.
    – drake
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 0:51
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    As noted in comments on the question, Ukraine DID let the world know that its planes were shot down by {pro-}Russian forces. So they didn't minimize the risk to airliner traffic
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 13:18
  • @DKV Since Ukraine DID let the world know that its planes were shot down by {pro-}Russian forces and the US and EU did not allow (or recommend) their flights to overfly this are, are you suggesting that the Malaysian airline is partially responsible even though the route was authorized?
    – drake
    Commented Jul 20, 2014 at 19:47
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    It is a war zone, what matters is that there is a war going on where Ukraine's air force was conducting bombing raids and the insurgents were firing on the planes using SAMs. The use of the BUK installation was known to NATO, Eurocontrol should never have approved overflights of Eastern Ukraine due to the risk of an accidental shoot down. Such accidenntal shoot downs have happened in the past, e.g. an Iranian aircraft was accidentally shot down by the US Navy, so if well trained professionals can make such mistakes, then one cannot just count on mere insurgents to not make mistakes. Commented Aug 22, 2015 at 21:29
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    The article from NYT has been updated since this answer was proposed. It seems the claim about Russia avoiding some airways prior to the attack has been watered down.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 12:32

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