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University of Iowa Professor: Implications of Flight MH17 Crash Could be 'Huge'

A Ukrainian-Russian conflict in recent months has turned into a "full-scale civil war," and reports that an unassociated passenger plane may have been shot down Thursday could add fuel to the clash and push it beyond the region, University of Iowa professor Art Durnev said.

"I'm concerned that's a real possibility here," said Durnev, a Russian native and associate professor for the UI Tippie College of Business. "Just look at history."

Durnev said he can't predict how the world will respond to Thursday's reports that a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur might have been shot down over Donetsk—an area in eastern Ukraine considered to be a stronghold of pro-Russian rebels.

But, Durnev said, he foresees the consequences as being "huge" and the odds of it inciting more violence on the ground as likely.

"This will have big political implications," he said.

Ukraine security officials Thursday said they have evidence indicating Russian rebels downed the plane using a ground-to-air missile, and Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko called the incident an act of terrorism.

But as of Thursday, those accusations had not been verified, and Russia and Ukraine have denied involvement. That, Durnev said, begs to the most immediate questions—what caused the crash, and if some group did shoot it down, who is to blame and what is the motive?

Durnev, who has friends and family in both countries, said theories began circulating immediately.

"It could have been Ukraine or Russia, and it could have been a mistake or intentional," he said. "They might have decided to shoot a Malaysia Airlines plane to get publicity … . Or maybe Ukraine shot it so the world would think that Russia shot it.

"But the worst scenario would be another unsolved mystery for the world," he said, referring to the Malaysia Airlines jetliner that disappeared in March after taking off from Kuala Lumpur and remains missing.

While investigators try to untangle clues to what caused the crash and who might be responsible, Durnev wondered if airlines in the immediate future will alter traditional flight routes to avoid the region.

"Almost every plane from Europe to Asia flies over that area," he said. "There are hundreds of planes flying over there."

The question is personal to Durnev, who next month is heading from Chicago to Hong Kong—a flight that would take him over eastern Ukraine. Durnev went online Thursday to check the route of his flight but said he's not terribly concerned for his safety.

Still, he acknowledged, "Anyone could have been on that type of plane."

Thursday's crash comes just a day after the Obama administration announced tougher sanctions against Russia for its support of separatists battling government forces in Ukraine. If authorities determine who was responsible for Thursday's downed passenger plane, Durnev said, more sanctions could follow.

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