The Ukraine Plane Disaster: Countdown to A New World War I?

Jacob Heilbrunn
The National Interest Blog | July 17, 2014

If the horrific downing of a Malaysian airplane over Ukraine was deliberate and carried out either from Russian territory or by separatists, then Russia and the West will move one step closer toward a confrontation that has unsettling echoes of August 1914. Sen. John McCain is warning of "profound repercussions" if it becomes clear that the airliner was shot down by separatists. This would not be a partisan issue in Washington. Both the Republican and Democratic parties would be pushed to condemn Russia and take much more drastic steps to attempt to contain it.

The question for Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has been playing with fire in the Ukraine, is whether he will conclude that the costs of failing to act decisively are higher than retreating. The longer the conflict goes on, the more he may feel compelled to be able to show actual gains. Otherwise he will resemble a high-stakes gambler whose bluff has been called. One possibility may be that the rebels shot down the airplane in order to exacerbate the confrontation with the West–to force Putin to back them more strongly. Another is that it was simply a mistake. But wars can begin from precisely such miscalculations.

Neither Obama nor German chancellor Angela Merkel has much appetite for a military confrontation. The last thing Germans want is to get dragged into a conflict that they view as primarily between Washington and Moscow, much as Germans feared that they would be the battleground for the superpowers during the cold war. But if Russia connivance at destroying the airplane is proven, then this could become a new Lusitania moment for the U.S.

The direction events are moving in Ukraine is clearly strengthening the hand of the hawks in Washington who want to confront Putin and his camarilla. McCain’s words are telling. If the plane disaster can be traced to Russia or the separatists, "It would open the gates for us assisting, finally, giving the Ukrainians some defensive weapons (and) sanctions that would be imposed as a result of that. That would be the beginning." The beginning, not the end.

This would not constitute a return to the cold war of the 1970s or 1980s, when the superpowers had largely regulated their confrontation. It might well be more akin to the formative period of the cold war during the late 1940s, when great ambiguity prevailed about Stalin’s intentions. Or, to take an even more dangerous precedent, it could resemble the World War I period, when various powers were jockeying for influence and power in the Balkans.

No, history is never exactly the same. But there are enough parallels with earlier eras to hope that Obama can exercise sufficient leadership to extricate the U.S. and its allies from what is fast becoming a treacherous road to war in Ukraine. A real truce needs to be established and the future of Ukraine needs to be negotiated by Germany, Russia, and the U.S. A new Congress of Berlin, akin to the one that took place in 1878, needs to take place.  Like it or not, Obama is being compelled by world events to become a foreign policy president in his second term. Ukraine may prove to be his biggest test.



Downed MH17 is tipping point in Ukraine
PJ Crowley, Former US Assistant Secretary of State
BBC | 18 July 2014

Over the past nine months, many have looked at the Ukrainian conflict as a renewed clash of grand strategies – a new Cold War – with respective leaders deliberately moving pieces on the international chessboard.

Malaysian Airlines flight 17 went down over Ukraine, killing 298 people onboard

But much like the old Cold War, a great deal of what happens is ad hoc, with proxies taking actions that can have unintended consequences and costs.

That appears to be the case with the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the skies over eastern Ukraine.

As US President Barack Obama indicated in a brief statement, it appears Ukrainian separatists fired a ground-to-air missile from territory they controlled.

In recent days, separatists have shot down multiple Ukrainian air assets. The most plausible explanation is they thought they were tracking a Ukrainian military aircraft, not a commercial airliner.

There is a fog of war. Commercial aircraft in conflict zones have been targeted by mistake before – Korean Air Flight 007 by Soviet forces in 1983 and Iranian Air Flight 655 by US forces in 1988.

If major powers cannot control everything that happens in proxy conflicts, they do control what they do in the aftermath of a tragedy like this.

It claimed the lives of 298 innocent civilians, most from the Netherlands, Malaysia and Australia.

How the key players react in the coming days and weeks will say a great deal about the future prospects for Ukraine and the nature of relations between Russia and the West.

Obama labelled the crash a "global tragedy" and together with other leaders called for a thorough and credible international investigation.

Unlike the still-unsolved mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, the key questions of what happened with Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 should be answerable and relatively quickly.

There is an accident scene. The on-board flight data recorders have or will be recovered, although rumours they are already in Moscow is cause for concern.

There are eyewitnesses. Because it is a conflict zone, various nations already had significant amounts of intelligence capabilities trained on the area.

Among the key unknowns is who pulled the trigger, if anyone. Sophisticated air defence systems can fire automatically without human intervention.

Whoever was manning the system, how did they acquire it? The Buk missile was also in the Ukrainian arsenal at the start of the crisis.

Did Russia provide it, along with training or direct support? Or did separatists gain control by overrunning Ukrainian military positions?

Given the failure of the United States and international community to build public support for a decisive response last fall to Syria’s use of chemical weapons – Syria has since given them up but intensified its use of conventional means to gain an advantage on the battlefield – they should be patient, let the investigation take its course and allow pressure to build on Putin to respond in more meaningful ways than he has to date.

Putin may not have total control over rebels in eastern Ukraine, but Russia’s not-so-invisible hand extends deep into the country.

He should be able to lean on separatists to obey a ceasefire and enable an international investigation to advance.

Over the past 24 hours, Putin and Russia have supported calls for an investigation, both in public and in the United Nations Security Council.

But he has also blamed Kiev for creating the conditions that led to the tragedy.

What Putin does next should be viewed as his bottom line. A failure by Putin to acknowledge Russia’s responsibility for what happened should have consequences.

If he clearly pulls back support, the tragedy can potentially create the opportunity for a negotiated settlement. If he doesn’t, then Europe and the United States need to draw a sharper line with Russia, abandon their cautious and graduated approach of the past several months, impose more meaningful costs and restructure relations with Russia for the foreseeable future.

At the start of the Ukraine crisis, Europe and the United States suggested Russia’s actions were inconsistent with 21st Century norms.

It is now time to redeem those words. Business as usual can no longer be the answer.

PJ Crowley is a former US assistant secretary of state and now a professor of practice and fellow at The George Washington University Institute of Public Diplomacy & Global Communication


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