Shake-up needed in UN, Patman says

The ''appalling'' shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet with the loss of about 298 lives highlights the need to rejuvenate the United Nations and its conflict-resolving machinery, Prof Robert Patman says.

Patman, who is a University of Otago specialist in international relations, said the ‘‘dreadful'' act was only the latest of a growing mass of civilian deaths arising from intense internal and interstate conflicts, both in eastern Ukraine and in the Middle East.

Many of the latter deaths - including children playing on a beach - had arisen from the Israeli bombardment and later invasion of Gaza, after Hamas-linked rocket attacks on Israel.

And about 170,000 people, most of them civilians, had been killed in Syria in the past three years.

Patman, who heads the politics department at Otago, said the United Nations was deliberately being kept weak by some big nations.

But, paradoxically, countries such as Russia and the United States could not alone resolve the civil wars and regional conflicts at the heart of the airliner disaster and the soaring civilian death toll in Gaza, Syria and Iraq.

If the big powers were not willing or able to resolve regional conflicts, small or medium-sized countries, including New Zealand, ultimately needed to play a much more active role.

Although details about the Malaysia Airlines disaster were yet to be fully clarified and confirmed, it seemed a Russian-built ground-to-air missile might have been involved and might have been fired by Russian-supplied separatist rebels in east Ukraine.

Although he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin had not wanted the aircraft to be destroyed, the outcome was among the indirect results of a wider and serious foreign policy ‘‘miscalculation'' by Putin.

That miscalculation lay in trying to impose an old-fashioned ‘‘muscular approach'' to Ukraine and other countries he perceived to be in the Russian ‘‘sphere of influence''.

Putin's poll ratings in Russia had soared after his earlier annexation of Crimea.

But the Russian economy was starting to pay a heavy price resulting from Western sanctions and disinvestment, and his popularity, ultimately, was likely to suffer.

A total of $US77 billion ($NZ88.7 billion) in overseas investment in the Russian economy had been withdrawn this year and the value of the Russian rouble was falling.

‘‘The Russian economy is critically dependent on the outside world,'' Patman said.

‘‘The costs of Mr Putin's policy on the Ukraine are escalating dramatically. It's becoming unsustainable.''

Putin had been trying to play an elaborate ‘‘double game'' by, on the one hand, annexing Crimea and arming Ukrainian separatist rebels, but, on the other, seeking to play the role of regional peacemaker in ostensibly trying to reduce tensions following the recent Ukrainian presidential elections.

His approach had ultimately caused Russia's international standing ‘‘enormous harm'', Patman said.

The shooting down of the airliner was clearly a ‘‘sobering'' moment.