Is MH17 disaster a result of tragic blunder?
By Michael Desch
Fri July 18, 2014
Editor’s note: Michael Desch is a professor and chairman of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame. He specializes in international security and American foreign and defense policies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) — In the last few days, two Ukrainian warplanes were brought down over Eastern Ukraine (one allegedly by a Russian jet) and on Thursday a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane crashed in the area, apparently with the loss of all 298 souls on board. If it turns out that the unfortunate civilian airliner was also shot down, Russia and its local allies could again be implicated. Understandably, the international community will wonder whether this portends an escalation in the Kremlin ambitions there.
Vice President Joe Biden is already sure he knows what happened, telling an audience in Detroit on Thursday that the plane has "been shot down, not an accident. Blown out of the sky." Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko calls this "an act of terrorism" and is pointing the rhetorical finger at Moscow.
While all the facts are not yet in, it is indeed possible that a Russian surface-to-air missile brought the civilian plane down. If so, Russia or its Ukrainian separatist allies bear heavy responsibility for this tragedy. But that would not indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s overall strategy in the region has changed.
If a Russian missile did bring down MH17, it is likely that it was the result of a tragic error, a case of mistaken identity, rather than an intentional act by either the Russian military or their Ukrainian separatist allies. Such accidents are sadly not unprecedented.
In 1983, Soviet Air Defense Forces tracking an American electronic reconnaissance plane operating near their naval facilities on the Kamchatka Peninsula mistakenly shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 with the loss of 269 passengers, including a hard-line anticommunist U.S. congressman. And during the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf in 1988, a U.S. Navy AEGIS cruiser — the USS Vincennes — mistook Iran Air Flight 655 for an attacking Iranian warplane and shot it down, killing 290 civilians. Such tragic accidents happen in wartime or periods of heightened international tensions.
If it turns out that this is what happened in this case, the Russian military and their Ukrainian allies will suffer a well-deserved black eye. The Russian Air Defense Forces ought to have been able to distinguish a civilian airliner, operating on a previously filed flight plan and with its electronic identification systems operating, from Ukrainian warplanes. If they gave a high-altitude system to the Ukrainian separatists, then they also should have anticipated that an accident like this could have happened given that the Donetsk Republic has only primitive radar systems.
But there is blame to go around. Why did MH17’s flight path take it right over a war zone in which two warplanes had just been shot down? You have to wonder what the airline and the Ukrainian and Russian civilian air controllers were thinking.
Even if events transpired as Biden and Poroshenko surmise, it’s unlikely to indicate any major change in the Kremlin’s ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. There is no evidence that Putin has deviated from his strategy of keeping the pot boiling in the region and begun moving toward something more ambitious.
Indeed, all the evidence suggests that he understands that the Donetsk Republic is not the Crimea. The best he can hope for is to use the pro-Russian insurgency as a lever to pry Kiev out of its increasingly Western orientation and as a bargaining chip with the new Ukrainian regime to get it to adopt a more federal political system that will keep Ukraine suspended between East and West.
This is, of course, a cold-blooded Machiavellian strategy of realpolitik. But such a cynical approach to the Eastern Ukraine is not incompatible with this event being nothing more than a tragic blunder.
How MH17 disaster backs Russia’s Putin into a corner
By David Clark, chair of Russia Foundation
CNN | July 19, 2014
Editor’s note: David Clark is chairman of the Russia Foundation. Clark was special adviser to former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1997 to 2001.The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Clark. Follow him on Twitter.
(CNN) — Few things are ever certain in the murky world of post-Soviet politics, but the balance of evidence as it stands points overwhelmingly towards pro-Russian separatists as the perpetrators of Thursday’s missile attack that caused the death of 298 people on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
If this becomes the settled conclusion of the governments around the world once all the facts are known, the consequences for Vladimir Putin are likely to be severe.
Throughout his time as Russian leader, Putin has been adept at exploiting divisions within the international community; playing governments off against each other and sensing when the reluctance of certain countries to act would provide him with greater freedom of maneuver.
So far he has just about managed to get away with annexing Crimea and destabilizing eastern Ukraine. Germany, unwilling to disrupt economic ties, has played a crucial role in limiting the scope of Western sanctions and Putin has been able to draw on reserves of good will in the developing world to overcome the threat of full international isolation. MH17 puts all of that in jeopardy.
The thing that will worry Putin most is that so many of the victims were from the European Union, including more than half from the Netherlands alone. The Dutch are relentless at using EU channels to challenge those deemed to have harmed their interests — just ask the Serbs.
The start of Serbia’s EU accession negotiations was single-handedly blocked by the Dutch until Belgrade finally handed over General Ratko Mladic to the Hague war crimes tribunal in 2011. Mladic was held responsible for humiliating Dutch peacekeepers during the Srebrenica massacre sixteen years earlier.
With 193 of its own citizens among the dead, we can expect the Netherlands to demand European solidarity in the form of a much tougher response to the crisis. This will make it increasingly difficult for Germany to hold the line against the extension of sanctions.
The overwhelming view among EU leaders will be that the fighting in eastern Ukraine must now be brought to a definitive end and that Russia bears primary responsibility for the fact that it has continued so long.
This narrows dramatically the gap between European and American perspectives on the situation and creates the potential for a much more united Western policy towards Russia.
A second troubling factor for Putin is that the Ukraine crisis has now touched the developing world in a serious way for the first time. Until yesterday it had been seen as a struggle between Russia and the West, with latent suspicion of the West among many emerging nations creating sympathy for Russian actions, if not actual approval.
A major objective of Putin’s post-Crimea diplomacy has been to capitalize on that sympathy in order to increase his options and reduce Russia’s reliance on the West. He hastily concluded a gas deal with China and made a big play of his involvement in the recent BRICS summit. The death of so many Malaysian and Indonesians on MH17 leaves him with a lot of explaining to do.
Sensing that he was losing the military initiative to a newly emboldened Ukrainian government, Putin had spent much of the last week preparing the way for a major escalation of Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine.
Russian forces had become much more directly involved in the fighting and allegations that Ukrainian forces had fired missiles across the Russian border were intended to create a pretext for intervention.
Because of this disaster he now finds himself on the back foot once again. Instead of being able to claim that he has been dragged reluctantly into the fighting, he now looks like the aggressor.
America’s Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, could not have been clearer in apportioning blame in her speech at the Security Council Friday: "Russia can end this war. Russia must end this war." The result is likely to be a Western ultimatum to Russia to comply with its previous commitments to rein in the separatists and deliver them to the negotiating table. If Putin refuses, the consequences could be twofold.
The first is that the Ukrainian government would be given a much freer hand to continue and complete its "anti-terror" operations against pro-Russian forces. The second would be a further tightening of Western sanctions. If these included a shift to the long threatened "sector sanctions" covering whole industries, the impact could be severe at a time when the Russian economy is already looking extremely vulnerable.
Having maintained the tactical initiative for most of the last four months, Putin suddenly faces an uncomfortable dilemma. Failure to co-operate in de-escalating the crisis invites the risk of deeper international isolation and real economic pain.
But abandoning the separatists mean a loss of political leverage over Ukraine and an even bigger loss of face at home. On a purely domestic level, Putin has done well out of the crisis so far. Popularity ratings that were collapsing two years ago are once more at near record levels. But he has achieved this by unleashing nationalist passions he doesn’t entirely control.
Whatever course he chooses, it is unlikely that his leadership will emerge unscathed.
Act now, or face war in Ukraine
By Andrew C. Kuchins
Fri July 18, 2014
Editor’s note: Andrew C. Kuchins is director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) — The shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine may finally force Washington and Europe to wake up to the danger of the conflict there escalating into full-blown war between Russia and Ukraine.
This potential cataclysm has been inching closer to reality in the last week. The Ukrainian security council has said Russian weapons and troops have been crossing into Ukraine, and military aircraft from both sides have engaged each other. Documented videos purport to show artillery fire into Ukraine from the Russian side. On Sunday the Russian media went berserk with reports of the first casualty of a Russian civilian on the Russian side, from an artillery shot of disputed origin.
Former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told me Monday he was decidedly more pessimistic about the prospects for resolving this crisis than he was three months ago. As a veteran of international negotiations in 1999 on Kosovo and in 2003 on Iraq, he was perplexed as to why the international community was not trying harder to resolve the Ukraine crisis. Last weekend the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, met with Iran on its nuclear issue but failed to use that opportunity to discuss Ukraine seriously.
The Ukraine conflict urgently requires the most resolute and determined efforts to de-escalate before we reach a point no return. Washington should be focusing policy attention on strengthening Ukraine’s capacity to defend its sovereignty, economically and physically; instead it has a misplaced obsession with using economic sanctions to punish Russia. The Obama administration and its critics on the right, such as Republican Sen. Bob Corker, contend that such sanctions will change Russian behavior, but there is not a shred of evidence to suggest this strategy would be effective.
There are many reasons why a policy over-weighted on punishing Russia is a dubious strategy at best.
First, the Russian economy was in stagnation, if not recession, with capital flying out of the country at record rates before the annexation of Crimea in March. The Obama administration cannot credibly claim its policies have made a significant difference to the Russian economy. They only allow Vladimir Putin to blame the West for Russia’s poor economy and deflect attention from the real culprit, his failed economic policy since returning to the presidency two years ago.
Second, Russia’s political economy and psychology are far more suited to absorbing punishment than the West. Russian companies suffering from sanctions can likely expect government subsidies to compensate their losses. I doubt U.S. and European companies can expect the same. They will simply lose market share. What’s more, a thousand years of history suggests the Russians are by far the most effective in punishing themselves.
Finally, if Russians perceive their punishment is inflicted by others, it is a powerful stimulant to national consolidation and a spur to inflict unimaginable punishment on others. Putin is an archetypal traditional Russian leader who aspires to making a historical imprint like Stalin and Ivan the Terrible. This is a bloody serious game he is playing, cynical and determined beyond what flabby American and European strategic thinking can or wants to comprehend.
He will not be deterred by sanctions. He has made a mockery of the G7 ultimatum in June that he cease and desist in Ukraine in 30 days or else. He has responded by sending more men and equipment across the border, with the predictable result that the "separatists" (the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic is led by well-known Russian citizens) actions have escalated.
The only good news is that the Ukrainian government’s military force has been extremely successful in destroying pro-Russian rebel strongholds over the past month. And herein lies the urgency of the problem. The rebel cause has been close to failing, with the defense of Luhansk and Donetsk being the endgame. Putin cannot allow that to happen as it could shatter his leadership position — he will not allow it to happen, plain and simple. The Ukrainian government has every right to defend its sovereignty against this Russian-instigated insurgency.
There is no other solution but urgent diplomacy to de-escalate and to get international peacekeepers to the border region as quickly as possible. The stakes in allowing this war to go on are far too high to allow for anything else.
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