It would appear that Separatists in Ukraine have shot down a Malaysian Airways civilian aircraft, resulting in the loss of almost 300 lives. The nature of the disaster, combining as it does sophisticated missile technology with bumbling incompetence, points to only one culprit. There have also been reports of a now deleted online boast by one of the separatist commanders that they had downed a Ukrainian military aircraft.
This is the archetypal ‘miscalculation’ that we hear warn of whenever opposing forces flood a region with military hardware. It only takes one person, or a small group, to wrongly identify an aircraft and catastrophe strikes. More than that; situations like this have the potential to cause conflict to escalate.
We must recognise Putin’s recklessness in arming the rebels to this degree. Using proxies may have seemed a cunning way to stir the pot without scalding his fingers, but yesterday’s disaster demonstrates one of the drawbacks of relying on poorly organised and inadequately controlled forces. Putin perhaps credited himself with more mastery of this situation than he truly possessed. More than any of the world leaders who have expressed their shock and sadness, he will have been truly gutted to hear of the attack. Though he quickly moved to blame the Kiev government for creating the situation in the first place, he will know that this incident is a disaster for Russia’s tactics in the region: undermining moral arguments and strengthening the opposition they face in Europe.
Wednesday saw new sanctions anounced by Washington and Brussels, but the EU’s (once they’re finalised) will far more limited. Russia may be on its own in this conflict, but The West has not been unified in its strength of opposition. The EU has been reluctant to let the Ukrainian conflict turn into an economic calamity by destroying trade relations with Russia. There may even have been an unspoken sympathy for Russia’s anger at the events earlier in the year. However, continuing to resist biting economic sanctions becomes politically unjustifiable for European leaders while separatist forces remain in situ. Hilary Clinton has already called for the imposition of further sanctions in the wake Thursday’s events. It’s surely inevitablRussia, Ukraine, MH17, USA, EU, NATOe.
There will be calls for over-reaction of a more physical nature from hawks in America. John McCain, who never misses a chance to advocate throwing bullets at the problem- any problem- has warned of ‘hell to pay’ for Russia. NATO moving its toys around and the US providing lethal aid to the Ukrainian military will do nothing for the families of the bereaved. It would however draw us closer to an even bloodier and even more dangerous proxy war. It would also give succour to those at the Kremlin itching to once again play the role of the set-upon hero facing down a much larger foe. This is a human tragedy, but crucially it’s also a public relations disaster for Putin in Russia. It’ll very difficult for Russian media to spin this as a possible ‘false flag’ attack given Ukraine’s repeatedly demonstrated reluctance to start a war. The theory that MH17 may have been mistakenly shot down by the Ukrainian military is also implausible given that the plane was heading out of Ukrainian airspace having flown over it for some time previously. Bellicosity of rhetoric or action on the part of Western leaders will only allow Putin to re-assert his increasingly invalid claim to the moral high-ground in Ukraine at a time when his policy will be coming under novel criticism domestically.
It must also be remembered that this was a mistake. The consequences may be horrendous, but it’s only cynical opportunism and a thirst for vengence that motivates those who would use this as an excuse to ramp up hostilities. A permanent cease-fire, followed by negotiations aimed at normalising the situation in Eastern Ukraine should be the priorities of Western governments now. Russia, shocked by its own hand in this, will be more amenable than ever.