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Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop keep politics out of MH17 issue for now, but strife with Russia looms

The physical conditions – recovering 298 bodies from the MH17 crash site in a war zone – verge on the impossible. The political conditions are preposterous.

From the outset, Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop decided that the best chance was to keep the crash response as separate as possible from the geopolitics.

That's why you won't see any US involvement. The multinational security force to be deployed to the crash site will be led by the Netherlands and is expected to include Australian, Malaysian, British and German personnel.

The US indicated to the Abbott government early it was ready to assist in the recovery operation if asked. But Australia and the Netherlands decided not to ask. Because political tension between the US and Russia is intense. 

It was Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, who last week gave US President Barack Obama the news in a phone call that a passenger jet, MH17 as it turned out, had just crashed in Ukraine. 

They were on the phone because Obama had called Putin to tell him about sanctions the US had decided to impose on Russia for destabilising Ukraine.


An angry Putin says the sanctions "are driving Russian-American relations to an impasse, causing very serious damage".

The chair of the US Senate intelligence committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said this week relations with Russia were now at Cold War levels. 

A prominent Russian oligarch and critic of Putin, Alexander Lebedev, owner of the British Independent and Evening Standard newspapers, made the same comparison: "The clock has moved back to the 1980s," he said, referring to when the Cold War was at its chilliest.

This is not true, objectively – the US and Russia today trade with each other and are not on a nuclear war footing – but the comments are an indicator of atmospherics. 

The Australian and Dutch decision was to limit the countries involved to those in the coalition of the grieving. 

Technically the US could qualify for membership; a young Dutchman on the flight had American citizenship, although he had long ceased living in the US. 

But the US was not seeking to insert itself. To include it would only complicate the mission.

Separating the crash response from geopolitics also proved important in winning the quick blessing of the UN Security Council for the recovery mission.

The Security Council is uniquely able to give legal and political sanctuary to an international operation. But it's also vulnerable to veto by its five permanent members, and Russia is one of them.

The veteran Russian representative at the UN, Vitaly Churkin, posed a test. The silver-haired 62-year-old is the man who wields Russia's veto.

From the moment Australia proposed its draft resolution calling for "a full, thorough and independent international investigation" into the crash and for those responsible to "be held to account", Russia had been seeking to amend or defeat it.

Churkin, the embodiment of Soviet-era propaganda, as a youth starred in Soviet movies. He later became head of the information department in the Soviet foreign ministry.

When he met Julie Bishop, he wanted to make it all about the geopolitics. Bishop wanted to make it all about the civilian dead. 

The Russian preoccupation from the beginning has been to pin the blame on Ukraine, and to evade blame itself. 

As they met in the UN office of Australia’s representative, Gary Quinlan, Churkin hammered the theme of Ukranian culpability.

The Russian offered Bishop at least four different arguments as to why it was the government of Ukraine that was responsible for shooting down the plane.

Bishop declined to join the argument and repeatedly told Churkin that she was interested in recovering the remains of the victims and attending to the needs of the grieving families. 

Churkin told Bishop that Russia would support Australia's resolution. And when the vote was taken around the Security Council table, Churkin's was one of the 15 hands raised.

Why did Russia acquiesce? There seem to be three main reasons.

First, its principal objection was that the resolution gave Ukraine a part in the investigation. It insisted that Ukraine be written out. The Russians wanted the investigation to be convened by technical organisations, notably the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Australian negotiators rejected this. They pointed to the international framework of aviation governance, the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation of 1944. It stipulates that air crash investigations must be instigated by the country in whose territory the crash occurs.

The investigation could then be conducted by the ICAO, but Ukraine must be invoked initially. It was a matter of law, not politics. 

Second, when the Russians refused to accept this and said they would draft their own resolution, they soon discovered that they were very lonely. Wherever they turned, they met resistance from other countries. 

Finally, Churkin’s final attempts at personally lobbying Bishop proved futile. She was immovable, and based her stand on the situation of the victims and not the politics of the situation.

At no point did Australia seek to defend Ukraine and take sides in its dispute with Russia. It refused to allow Russia to turn it into a contest with Ukraine. 

Russia could either support the resolution or defy all world opinion and veto a perfectly reasonable set of demands in the face of an outrage.

In the event, UN Security Council resolution 2166 was a case study in swift, effective diplomacy in response to a crisis. Bishop won full plaudits from her Dutch counterpart, Frans Timmermans, who told the media: "I want to start by wholeheartedly thanking Australia for taking the initiative with this resolution, and especially the personal commitment from Julie Bishop that has made this possible."

Abbott, the motive force behind the enterprise in the UN and beyond, gets primary credit.

In opposition, the Coalition objected to Australia's bid for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. This was always misguided. A lesson has just been learnt. Australia, as should any self-respecting country, should always want its voice heard in the highest counsels so that it can defend its interests and advance civilised values. 

It was an important beginning, well executed. The mission ahead is fraught with practical danger. 

The pro-Russian rebels who hold the area have been allowing Australia and other affected countries access for no more than three officials at a time. Access is by an hours-long road trip through a minimum of six rebel checkpoints. 

The leader of the rebels in the area, a Russian, Alexander Borodai, is a former ultranationalist activist who formerly called himself a "political consultant". Now he is the tinpot, self-appointed prime minister of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic, although there is no tin in the heavy Russian weapons his men wield.

He has no interest in decency or humanity. He said on CNN this week the crash site was the object of "black humour".

As late as Friday, a week after the crash, eyewitnesses said that two armed rebels maintained a desultory watch over the crash site and made no effort to discourage sightseers who looked through wreckage of MH17. Debris from the Boeing 777 litters local roadsides. 

And around the site the war rages. The Ukranian armed forces have continued to wage artillery and aircraft attacks on the pro-Russian rebels, successfully taking ground this week. The separatists are fighting back. 

The Russians continue to pour heavy weapons across the border to the rebels, according to US and German officials. The rebels, or, according to the Ukrainian government, the Russians themselves shot down two Ukranian jets on Wednesday, close to the MH17 crash zone.

In the midst of all this, Ukraine’s government fell on Friday when two parties in the ruling coalition withdrew to bring on an election. In a remarkable epitaph to his government, the outgoing prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, said: "The fact that the coalition has fallen apart, that laws haven't been voted on, that soldiers can't be paid, that there is no money to buy rifles, that there is no possibility to fill gas storages ... What options do we have now?” 

In the meantime, adding another level of complexity, the European Union is weighing punitive sanctions against Moscow. 

The spontaneous sanction of the Dutch people against Putin's daughter has been swifter and more personal. Maria Putin has been living in the Netherlands and is now being vilified by the local media and the local mayor. Her life in the Netherlands abruptly has become intolerable. 

Australia has so far kept its crash response pretty much separate from geopolitics, but this cannot last. After recovery, the process moves to investigation and then to the final phase. As Abbott put it, "then, of course, we have to punish the guilty".

At that point, there can be no avoiding geopolitics.

When Abbott committed to the fullest possible pursuit of MH17, he did not realise just how hard it would be to get workable access to the crash site. But he did realise that this course ultimately could bring him, depending on the trail of evidence, into direct conflict with the President of Russia.

Abbott could have set out a more limited goal, and that way been surer of success. He has not chosen the politically safe route. 

He has taken the risk to defend fully the rights of Australians, and the rights of civilians everywhere, to travel unmolested by war. He is now set upon a big and difficult enterprise in a worthy cause. 

Asked about this on CNN on Friday, Bill Shorten uttered the four words least often spoken by an opposition leader: "Well," he began, "the Prime Minister’s right. On this matter there is no internal political debate in Australia. We are united in our grief."

Abbott has the full support of the opposition. And so he should.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.