Fueling the Fire in Ukraine

Interviewee: Steven Pifer, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor
CFR.org | July 18, 2014

The crash of a Malaysian passenger jet over eastern Ukraine on July 17 that killed 298 people could sharply escalate tensions involving Ukraine, Russia, and pro-Russian separatists. It is crucial at this stage for an international investigation to be launched, with neutral participants, to withstand charges of bias, says Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. But the international community, particularly the United States and Europe, should be prepared to ramp up sanctions against Russia in the event evidence linking separatists to the crash is firmed up, he says.

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. (Photo: Maxim Zmeyev/Courtesy Reuters)

Details are still murky in this incident involving the Malaysian airliner but it comes at a time of increasing clashes in eastern Ukraine, including aircraft downed by pro-Russian separatists. Can you talk about the separatists capabilities in this area?

The separatists over the last three weeks have had some success in bringing down Ukrainian military aircraft, usually more at lower altitudes and the suspicion is they have used Stinger-like missiles. But by all accounts the Malaysian airliner was flying at an altitude of about 30,000 feet. Shoulder-fired systems could not reach that altitude but there have been some reports that the separatists do have access to the ‘Buk’ missile system. It is a large missile mounted on a truck and it would have the capabilities to reach that altitude.

What about Ukrainian government forces’ air capabilities?

The Ukrainians do have some air defense capabilities including against high altitude targets but as far as we have seen there has been no use so far in this conflict in eastern Ukraine by the Ukrainian military of surface-to-air missiles because the separatists do not have aircraft.

The crash area is on contested ground. How should authorities, both local and international, best respond in a situation like this?

The most important thing is to have an international group with representatives of the Ukrainian government, Malaysia [and] Boeing should be there because it’s a Boeing aircraft. It’s also important to bring in some neutral observers from places like Finland, Austria, and Switzerland because at the end of the day you will want an investigation that is as credible as possible and be able to withstand concerns expressed by different sides that it’s slanted one way or another. This will be the big first test: are the separatists prepared to allow that sort of investigation to take place in an area where they appear to have some significant forces?

What is the relationship between Russian authorities and these separatist rebels?

There have been a lot of reports over the last three or four weeks, including by the U.S. government and NATO, of weapons and supplies flowing across the Russian border into Ukraine, including heavy weapons such as tanks. So, if it turns out that the separatists did in fact shoot down the aircraft the question will arise: who provided the separatists in eastern Ukraine with the capabilty to shoot down that airliner at that kind of altitude? Even yesterday there was reporting that seems to have a fair degree of credibility of rockets being launched from inside Russia, about three miles inside Russia, into Ukraine. So there’s a lot of evidence here that the Russians have been very supportive of the separatists.

There is a separate question, which is how much control do they have over the separatists. You have a number of locals who were involved in the separatist groups but there is also a fair suspicion that there are Russian military or perhaps Russian intelligence personnel involved at least in some of these operations. Particularly at the beginning [of the crisis in Ukraine] you saw people who looked very much like professional Russian military personnel in some of the original takeover of buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk back in April.

This comes a day after tougher sanctions announced by the US and EU against Russia. They fell short of sectoral sanctions. Are they having any impact yet?

The sanctions that were applied even before the sanctions announced yesterday were having an economic impact on Russia. For example, Bloomberg reported about a month ago that in 2013 Russian companies were able to place about $43 billion in foreign currency bonds. In January and February this year it was about $6 to $7 billion, since March it’s been zero.

What it hasn’t yet done is cause Russia to change its course on Ukraine and become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The sanctions announced [this week] by the United States and European Union look to be a bit more serious. You now have the U.S. government blocking lending to some very big Russian companies and Russian financial institutions. The Europeans are blocking all lending to Russia by the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. So the questions is will these sanctions begin to have an impact on Russian policy?



Air Disaster Strains Moscow’s Competing Strategy on Ukrainian Rebels
NYT | JULY 17, 2014

MOSCOW — The double game that the Kremlin has been accused of playing in eastern Ukraine for weeks — publicly endorsing peace talks while surreptitiously supporting the separatists with arms and men — suddenly appeared less crafty than possibly disastrous on Thursday after the crash of a civilian jetliner in a Ukrainian field.

What brought Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tumbling out of the sky, killing all 298 people aboard, remained uncertain. But given the immediate suspicions raised in Kiev and Washington that a sophisticated missile ripped it apart, the crash brought the question of who was responsible right to the doorstep of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

“It is an extremely awkward moment for the Kremlin,” said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Everyone in the West and in Ukraine is already pointing their fingers at the Kremlin. They are not waiting for an inquiry — they are blaming Russia today.”

Mr. Putin himself pointed the finger at Ukraine.

During a late cabinet meeting on economic matters, according to a statement on the Kremlin website, he said, “Definitely, the country over whose territory this happened bears the responsibility for this horrible tragedy.”

Mr. Putin, without saying what might have caused the crash, said that “this tragedy could have been avoided” had Ukraine not resumed combat operations in the southeast. A shaky cease-fire lasted 10 days at the end of June.

The Russian president said he had instructed all military and civilian agencies to give all possible assistance “in the investigation of this crime.”

“We shall do everything, at least everything in our power, so that the objective picture of what happened becomes available to our public, the public of Ukraine and the entire world,” he said.

Russia has flatly denied supplying the rebels with men or weapons. But with each passing week, as the bloodshed escalated, new questions were raised about the involvement of the Russian security services. The United States imposed new, tougher economic sanctions against a few Russian banks and its oil industry on Wednesday, in the process accusing Moscow of continuing to arm the separatists.

The Russian military had already denied this week that it had shot down a Ukrainian military AN-26 cargo plane near the border on Monday with a missile fired from its territory. Ukraine’s defense minister said that plane had been flying at more than 21,000 feet, well beyond the reach of the shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles the rebels have been known to use.

The charges of Russian involvement were being repeated in the case of Flight 17, which was flying higher than 21,000 feet.

Even Russian analysts have scoffed at claims by Mr. Putin and the Russian government that it was pursuing solely a diplomatic end to the crisis in Ukraine, prompted in February by the popular overthrow of a Russian ally in Kiev who had rejected a closer alliance with Europe.

“It is a game for Putin,” said a former senior Russian government official this week, speaking anonymously to avoid damaging his relationship with Mr. Putin, who was once an intelligence officer. “He likes to say that he is a peacekeeper from one hand, while from the other he is sending the rebels arms. It is typical K.G.B.”

The United States, and to a lesser degree European nations, have accused Russia of sending soldiers and weapons across the border for months now, in a barely veiled flow of evermore elaborate weaponry.

On the Ukrainian side, the separatists have similarly refuted receiving much help from Russia, even as their arsenal has come to include tanks, howitzers, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, ground-to-ground multiple-rocket launchers and other heavy weapons. Officials in the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist governments, many of them Russian citizens, said the arsenal was pilfered from Ukrainian bases they had captured.

Initially, militia fighters were coy about their more sophisticated weaponry; men on barricades showed little more than Kalashnikov rifles.

But later, one militant brigade, the Vostok Battalion, invited reporters to photograph fighters unpacking wooden crates holding new-looking Russian-made Igla, or Needle, shoulder-carried antiaircraft missiles. With planes and helicopters being shot down regularly, there seemed no point in hiding anything.

In June, Ukrainian officials said three tanks crossed border points with Russia controlled by rebels and rolled into Ukraine. Other columns followed. Videos appeared of tanks and armored personnel carriers towing artillery along roads near the border.

In addition to accusing Russia of sending Grad rocket launchers into Ukraine, Kiev also charged that the Russian military had fired them across the border at its troops. After initial expressions of concern in Western capitals, the flow of weapons became almost routine.

For some, the crash of Flight 17 was reminiscent of one of the worst incidents of the Cold War, when on Sept. 1, 1983, Soviet air defense forces shot down a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 that had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 people on board were killed. Moscow stonewalled the investigation for 10 years, until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Others pointed to Ukraine accidentally shooting down a Siberian Airlines passenger jet over the Black Sea in 2001 during a military training exercise.

Immediately after Thursday’s crash, the Kremlin issued a short statement summarizing what it called a previously scheduled telephone conversation between Mr. Putin and President Obama. “The parties had a detailed discussion about the crisis in Ukraine,” the statement said.

Mr. Putin repeated the need for an immediate cease-fire, objected to what he said was Ukrainian army fire striking inside Russia, and “expressed his disappointment” at the latest round of sanctions.

The only reference to the crash came in one sentence at the end: “The Russia leader informed the U.S. president of the report received from air traffic controllers immediately prior to their conversation about the crash of a Malaysian airplane over the Ukrainian territory.”

But that might have been because Mr. Putin himself was in the air over Eastern Europe late Thursday afternoon, state-run television reported, flying home from Brazil after a six-day Latin American tour.

The official line, echoed by state-run television and analysts close to the Kremlin, included plenty of speculation that Ukraine was at fault. Experts interviewed on Rossiya 24, a main cable news show, stressed that there was no evidence that the crash was caused by a missile.

One expert noted that Malaysia Airlines had already lost one long-range jet this year, a sign that anything could have happened to another of its aircraft, and suggested that Flight 17 might have collided with a Ukrainian military aircraft because Kiev was lax in not closing Ukraine’s airspace.

Sergei Markov, an analyst who often speaks about the Kremlin’s viewpoint when it will not, called the crash either terrible luck, a deliberate Ukrainian plot or, as he put it, “a specially organized conspiracy by the Kiev junta.”

He favored the accident theory, but noted that a civilian airliner should not have been flying over the region.

“There is a war in the air” over eastern Ukraine, Mr. Markov noted, so if an air traffic controller deliberately cleared the pilot to enter that zone, then the fault lies with Ukraine.

The reason would be “so that it is easier to send foreign troops to Ukraine,” he said. “We see that the junta is doing everything to achieve that.”

Robert A. Schlegel, a member of Parliament in the ruling United Russia party, said the downing of the Boeing 777 would resonate in Russia and in the West in different ways. In Russia, he said, many criticize the government for having done too little to arm the pro-Russian groups in Ukraine; the crash is unlikely to change that view.

“There are a lot of questions of why this airplane was flying over this region, and whose missiles shot it down,” Mr. Schlegel said. “This type of equipment doesn’t lie around in the road.”

No matter what the Kremlin says or does, the idea that only someone with military training would have been able to operate the technically complicated air defense system needed to fire a missile to such height will undoubtedly keep the spotlight focused on Moscow.

“Vladimir Putin kept raising the stakes,” when it came to military support, said Kirill Rogov, an economic analyst and political commentator in Moscow. “In my view, he kept making mistakes, but to cover them he raised the stakes even higher. This was a dangerous strategy, and now we see the results.”



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