An MH17 Investigation Is Not a Substitute for Action
A lengthy, thorough inquiry into the Malaysia Airlines shoot-down is an absolute necessity — and could be exactly what Putin wants.
Foreign Policy | JULY 22, 2014
The world must have an accurate and authoritative understanding of what happened when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 fell from the skies over eastern Ukraine on July 17 — and, by extension, who is to blame. Likewise, the relatives of the 298 passengers and crew members who died in the crash deserve as much truth as can be dug up from the increasingly compromised crash site. Nonetheless, the ongoing investigation has the potential to become a dangerous distraction from the more important political issues at hand. That cannot be allowed to happen.
There is a serious risk that by focusing so sharply on the crash-site inquiry and on the bodies of the victims, the West will let Russian President Vladimir Putin off the hook for the tragic atrocity for which he must take responsibility. The Buk missile, which almost certainly blew MH17 out of the sky, either was provided directly by the Russians (as intercepted rebel communications suggest) or was stolen from the Ukrainians and brought to battle-readiness through Russian technical assistance. More to the point, although Moscow is trying to point the finger at Kiev for having the temerity to try to suppress a violent, foreign-backed rebellion on its own soil, the insurgency in eastern Ukraine has been fomented, encouraged, armed, and, in cases, directed by the Kremlin.
You don’t need to be a fan of the vintage British political sitcom Yes Minister to know that inquiries can as easily be used as tools of obfuscation and delay. As the suavely cynical Sir Humphrey Appleby puts it in one episode, "The job of a professionally conducted internal inquiry is to unearth a great mass of no evidence."
Moscow is happy to see the West focus on the bodies and the inquiry. This allows it to play a role in repatriating the former and to trumpet its cooperation with the latter. Of course, Russian cooperation will no doubt be partial and carefully metered. While Putin speaks of doing "everything to ensure the security of the work of international experts at the site of the tragedy," his local proxies, Ukraine’s rebels, were turning away OSCE monitors and spiriting away the black-box flight recorders.
In contrast to the clumsy efforts of the local militia, whose members managed to compound their disrespectfully unceremonious handling of the bodies with outright looting (observers noted wallets emptied of cash and credit cards, cameras removed from cases, and rings removed from bodies), sober-looking but unidentified men were seen by journalists carefully working their way over the site. While we do not have proof, it is hardly beyond the realm of possibility that these were Russians — GRU military intelligence officers and military air-traffic investigators — doing their best to sanitize what should be considered and treated as a crime scene.
Having already played its part in seeing the rebels hand over the black boxes to a Malaysian delegation, Moscow will likely try to claw back some lost credit with the West by interceding to ensure the bodies are repatriated. Likewise, an inquiry will be set up, presumably under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization, which Moscow is likely to want to influence and delay while appearing to cooperate. If the eventual findings are unwelcome, the Kremlin can always dismiss it as partisan propaganda.
Above all, though, the Russians understand that Western politics are characterized as much by attention-deficit disorder as anything else. Today’s burning topic becomes tomorrow’s old news, driven from the front pages by a new crisis or concern. In the short term, the Kremlin hopes that by appearing to compromise over the crash site, it can distract the West from the wider question of its semi-covert efforts to destabilize a sovereign neighbor. Furthermore, the proposed local cease-fire to help facilitate this will actually give the hard-pressed rebels a chance to consolidate their forces and regroup for continued fighting against Kiev’s government, giving the Kremlin a chance to prolong its proxy war.
But in the long term, Moscow must hope that an inquiry can give time for tempers to cool, voices for pragmatic (and often self-interested) cooperation to once again be heard, and new challenges to rise to dominate national agendas. The International Civil Aviation Organization’s report on the Soviet shoot-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983, for example, emerged three months afterward. There is likely an assumption in the Kremlin that three months is long enough for the world to have moved on.
On July 21, U.S. President Barack Obama said, "Our immediate focus is on recovering those who were lost, investigating exactly what happened, and putting forward the facts." This is understandable. But while pushing the need for a comprehensive investigation, the West must not squander this historic moment in which it is more united than at any time in years on the need to take a clear stand against Russian aggression abroad. And this must be a stand characterized by concrete action, such as tougher sanctions and diplomatic isolation, not just heightened rhetoric.
Russian attempts to appear cooperative with the investigation do not lessen the need to take a hard line.
Dealing with Putin the Pariah
The tragedy of MH17 should be a wake-up call to Western leaders to stop dragging their feet and take decisive action now.
David J. Kramer
The American Interest | July 18, 2014
Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999-2000 in large part due to his willingness to use brutal, indiscriminate force against Chechen “terrorists”, causing tens of thousands of innocent casualties in Chechnya. During his more than 14 years in power, he has:
- headed a regime in which critics are often intimidated, imprisoned, and even murdered;
- armed, aided, and abetted Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of the Syrian people;
- attacked and invaded neighboring states Estonia (via cyberwarfare) in 2007, Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014, and used economic and energy tools, including gas cutoffs in the middle of winter, to pressure them.
Now Putin appears to have the blood of 298 passengers and crew from Malaysia Air Flight 17 on his hands.
Indications suggest that the airliner flying over eastern Ukraine, territory controlled by the Russia-supported forces, was downed by a missile fired from a Buk-M1 air defense system; Russian separatist forces bragged in June about capturing such systems from a Ukrainian military base. Immediately after MH17 was hit, Igor Strelkov, a Russian citizen who has been leading the fight against Ukraine, claimed that his forces brought down what they thought was a Ukrainian military plane. On previous occasions, Strelkov (Girkin) and his Russian-backed forces have brought down several Ukrainian military planes, including two Ukrainian Su-25 jets on Wednesday. It was simply a matter of time before they risked hitting a civilian aircraft.
Putin has done absolutely nothing to rein in the forces that he unleashed, despite pleading from Western leaders. On the contrary, in the past week alone, there is indisputable evidence of Russian armored vehicles and heavy weaponry crossing the Russian border into Ukraine. Strelkov and others have visited Moscow regularly to receive support and instructions.
The entire crisis in Ukraine is the responsibility of Putin. Last fall, he pressured Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych into abandoning deals with the European Union, setting off a wave of protests in Ukraine. In February, Putin offered Yanukovych a $15 billion bailout but only if Yanukovych brutally suppressed the protestors; more than 100 people were killed in downtown Kyiv. After Yanukovych fled Ukraine and forfeited power, Putin, terrified that such a scenario might be repeated in Russia, invaded Crimea and staged a rigged referendum that led to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in March. Dizzy with success in Crimea, Putin decided to try his luck in the eastern parts of Ukraine, but ran into a lack of support among Ukrainians living there and resistance from reconstituted Ukrainian forces.
For months, Putin has been doing his best to destabilize Ukraine by sending in forces and arms, including tanks, and cutting off energy supplies. More than 500 people have been killed in the fighting for a separatist cause that few Ukrainians actually support. The so-called “separatist” leaders are in most cases Russian citizens; their frequent visits to Moscow for consultations underscore how easily the conflict could have ended had Putin decided—or been forced to decide—to do so.
While there is need for a full and transparent investigation of the shootdown of MH17, Western leaders should not wait for that investigation to conclude before taking action. First, on top of the targeted sanctions announced by the U.S. on Wednesday against some key Russian enterprises, it is time for full-scale sectoral sanctions on Russia’s banking, energy, defense, mining, and technology sectors. The Europeans should follow suit, but the U.S. should be prepared to go it alone if the EU continues to drag its feet—and these measures should be announced immediately.
Second, France should announce the cancelation of the deal for the Mistral amphibious assault ships slated to be delivered to Russia this November. Not doing so is just unconscionable. Instead, Paris and other NATO capitals should provide Kyiv with serious military weaponry to enable Ukraine to defend itself.
Third, Western leaders need to adopt a different attitude toward the Russian leader. Putin runs an enormously corrupt, authoritarian regime that has as its main goal staying in power at any cost. He has caused the deaths of thousands of people, destabilized his neighbors, supported murderous like-minded tyrants elsewhere around the globe, and repeatedly violated the human rights of his own people. He may be popular among Russians these days, but that should not deter the West from pursuing a principled policy.
Placing Putin himself on the visa ban and asset freeze list would be a huge step, equivalent to a declaration of political war. But if the downing of MH17 doesn’t get people to start thinking along such lines, how many more innocent victims will it take?
Those of us who have been calling for tough sanctions for months have been warning that things could spin out of control and that, undeterred, Putin might threaten other countries in the region and beyond. The tragedy of MH17 should be a wake-up call to Western leaders to stop dragging their feet and to take decisive action now. They should stop treating Putin as a normal leader and instead treat him as the international pariah that he is.
David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House.
After Malaysia Air Tragedy, Vladimir Putin Blamed For Opening Pandora’s Box In Ukraine
The Inquisitr | July 19, 2014
Russian President Vladimir Putin is being blamed for the tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday, with world leaders and pundits pinning the tragedy on Putin’s policies with respect to the Ukrainian rebels.
As we reported yesterday, President Barack Obama said:
“[The incident] should snap everybody’s heads to attention and make sure that we don’t have time for propaganda, we don’t have time for games, we need to know exactly what happened, and everybody needs to make sure that we’re holding accountable those who — who committed this outrage.”
Short of directly blaming Putin for the plane coming down, Obama did assign much of the responsibility for the situation with Moscow. Putin, Obama said, “has the most control over the situation, and so far, at least, he has not exercised it.”
An argument is emerging among many analysts and leaders that Putin may have opened a Pandora’s Box by supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine, providing them with material support and encouragement with little concern about where that might lead.
Mitch Potter of The Toronto Star called Putin’s role in Ukraine “a Frankenstein monster of chaotic, nihilistic, nativist ineptitude.”
Potter also pointed to a tweet from Garry Kasparov, the chess master who is no fan of Putin:
Reporting from Kiev, Time‘s Simon Shuster pointed to the crash of a plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczyński four years ago as a possible template for how Putin could use Flight 17 as a way to pivot toward a more conciliatory stance. But Russia’s president does not appear interested in following his earlier example. Rather, it seems that Putin is committed to a course that Shuster says “would not only mean further isolation for Russia” but “also prolong or even deepen the most dangerous phase in its conflict with Ukraine.”
The Telegraph‘s John Kampfner goes so far as to call Putin “a pariah” who “must now be treated as such.” Like Potter, he questions just how much control the Russian president has on the situation:
“For sure, Putin did not want developments to unfold in the way they have done. The rebels had, shortly before the Malaysian airliner was downed, just boasted about their prowess in picking Ukrainian military planes from the sky. They ended up picking the wrong target. Their minders in Moscow will be furious with them, knowing that the events of the past 48 hours will set back the rebels’ cause.”
But “Putin has no end game in Ukraine,” Kampfner writes, only certainty of “what he doesn’t want — a functioning, Western leaning, democratic state.”
And despite Putin’s meticulously groomed image, there is a question of whether he is truly as in control as he likes to portray himself as being. At Russia!, New York University professor Mark Galeotti writes, “In fact, the real Putin is clearly a cautious, in some ways even paradoxically timid figure in his aggressions.”
It’s possible that all of his maneuvering may just backfire, leaving him with an image of ineptitude to match the increasingly messy policy reality.
Russia-watcher Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post on Friday that the Malaysia Airlines tragedy offers Putin a chance to make amends for his earlier decisions:
“So far there is no sign of shock or shame in Russia. But in truth, this tragedy offers Vladimir Putin an opportunity to get out of the messy disaster he created in eastern Ukraine. He has the perfect excuse to denounce the separatist movement and to cut its supplies. If he refuses, then we know that he remains profoundly dedicated to the chaos and nihilism he created in Donetsk. We can assume he intends to perpetuate it elsewhere. And if we are not prepared to fight it, we should be braced for it to spread.”
Regardless of Putin’s own political concerns, or perhaps partly because of them, the challenges for Western leaders remain complicated as well. In today’s Washington Post, the editorial board criticized Obama for unsubtly pinning the blame on Putin but failing to counter with stronger actions beyond what they consider “half-steps and symbolic gestures.”
Still, at the United Nations Security Council emergency meeting yesterday, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power took a hard line against Russia’s role in the conflict.
“Russia can end this war,” she said. “Russia must end this war.”
But after the shooting down of Malaysia Air Flight 17, the question now is whether Vladimir Putin, or anybody else in Russia, has enough control over the situation to do so.
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