What does last week’s tragic and criminal downing of Malaysian Air Flight MH 17 over the fields of eastern Ukraine say about the likely culprits’ complete disregard for world opinion? What does Barak Obama’s lukewarm condemnation and the international community’s continued indifference reveal about the United States’ former cold war nemesis’s Machiavellian world view? Is the Ukraine becoming the new Berlin Wall?
Since the fall of the Soviet Union over 20 years ago, Ukraine has struggled to form its identity, making it easy for bigger powers to deepen the divides in a population split between a Ukrainian-speaking west and Russian-speaking southeast. The country’s first and second presidents after independence took pride in holding Ukraine together, acknowledging the pressures on a country that has a 1,000-year history as a state, but has been carved up by its neighbors for centuries.
This ongoing identity struggle was in full bloom last Friday as emergency workers, off-duty coal miners and poorly dressed civilians, all covered in muck — spread out across the sunflower fields and villages of eastern Ukraine, searching the wreckage of the ill-fated flight as it flew miles above the country’s ongoing battlefield.
The attack Thursday afternoon killed 298 people from nearly a dozen nations — including vacationers, students and a large contingent of scientists heading to an AIDS conference in Australia.
Kiev says it has “conclusive evidence” that Russia supplied rebels with the BUK-M1, or SA-11 radar guided missile launcher, and the crew that shot down the Malaysian airliner. Russia denies arming the rebels, and its Defense Ministry has challenged Washington to produce any evidence that a missile was fired at the airliner. The ministry says Ukrainian warplanes had flown close to the aircraft.
Whether it is ultimately proved one way or the other, the damage between what Putin has called these two “brother” nations has been done. Any dream of keeping what remains of Ukraine, seen by many Russians as the cradle of their civilization, in Russia’s sphere of influence has been shattered. Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and allegations that he is stirring the rebellion in its eastern regions have already sharpened the desire among many Ukrainians to integrate more closely with the West.
It is a feeling shared by many in Ukraine, if not in its east, though even there some of the support for pro-Russian rebels wanting to carve out an independent Donbass republic has faded. “It’s obvious it’s Russian weapons. I cannot blame the people, but it’s clear that one stupid guy, one stupid hand, killed almost 300 people,” said Oleksiy Yaroshevych, a consultant on the environment, referring to Putin.
Outside the Dutch embassy in Kiev, where Ukrainians laid flowers to remember the dead, including 80 children, Yaroshevych said he was ashamed it had happened in Ukraine. “Maybe this horrible story will help focus the people of Europe to understand that we should do something together against Russia,” he said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klymkin concurs, saying Kiev could count on Europe’s solidarity but little more. “I sometimes say … in Europe they have looked at us as if through a window,” he told Ukraine’s Inter television. “And now the terrorists have thrown the stone.”
They may have also sharpened the sense for some of what it is to be Ukrainian.
Whether fuelled by attachment to the past or an urge for a different future, the violence of the last few months has concentrated many minds on what distinguishes Ukrainians not just from Russia but also from the rest of Europe.
Outrage was palpable the world over. An angry Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott demanded an independent inquiry into the downing.
“The initial response of the Russian ambassador was to blame Ukraine for this and I have to say that is deeply, deeply unsatisfactory,” he said. “It’s very important that we don’t allow Russia to prevent an absolutely comprehensive investigation so that we can find out exactly what happened here.”
“This is not an accident; it’s a crime,” he added.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement expressing shock and sadness about the destruction of the plane and said Canada is willing to assist authorities in determining the cause of the crash.
And President Obama, as always heavy on words but offering little in terms of concrete action or inspired leadership, chimed in on Friday, calling this an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.”
It seems increasingly likely that Moscow’s hand is behind what happened with flight 17: As even Obama conceded, it was shot down by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine with the help of the Russian state. As he noted, “we have confidence in saying that that shot was taken within a territory that is controlled by the Russian separatists.” Moreover, he said, “a group of separatists can’t shoot down military transport planes or, they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training. And that is coming from Russia.”
Faced with a preponderance of evidence that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17 was shot down by Ukrainian rebels using a weapons system they could almost certainly only have been acquired from and operated with Russian help, the Russian government has a predictably implausible excuse. They’re strongly suggesting that the airliner may have been shot down by a Ukrainian Air Force jet that was tracking it. A few problems: The Ukrainian jet can’t fly nearly as high as the airliner was flying, it’s barely as fast as the airliner, and the only evidence that it was tracking the airliner so far comes from the Russian government.
At a press conference in Moscow on Monday, the Russian-government-owned outlet RT reports, a Russian military commander said the following:
“A Ukraine Air Force military jet was detected gaining height, its distance from the Malaysian Boeing was three to five kilometers. [We] would like to get an explanation as to why the military jet was flying along a civil aviation corridor at almost the same time and at the same level as a passenger plane. The SU-25 fighter jet can gain an altitude of 10 kilometers, according to its specification. It’s equipped with air-to-air R-60 missiles that can hit a target at a distance up to 12 km, up to 5 km for sure.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine was responsible for the unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions — but did not accuse Ukraine of shooting the plane down and did not address the key question of whether Russia gave the rebels such a powerful missile.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk described the downing as an “international crime” whose perpetrators would have to be punished in an international tribunal. “Yesterday’s terrible tragedy will change our lives. The Russians have done it now,” he was cited as saying by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said the plane was flying at about 10,000 meters when it was hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 22,000 meters.
Just how far will this increasing escalation of words and beyond go? A new round of measures was just announced this week so it’s too early to judge their impact, but there is no sign of Russia backing off its illegal and brazen aggression. Indeed, just yesterday Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander, released a video appearing to show a Russian Grad rocket launcher shelling Ukrainian territory.
It is wishful thinking to imagine that the shooting down of Flight 17 will, by itself, cause Russia to end its attacks on Ukrainian territory. To force Russia to back off will require a massive effort on the part of the West. Admittedly, Obama’s statement on Friday was only an initial stab at a response; tougher measures may be coming. But his words give little confidence that the type of massive response needed to force Russia into retreating will ever occur.
A resurgent Mother Russia may well continue spinning her implausible innocence but this is assuredly not a version of events that the Ukrainian government and its Western allies are likely to accept.