Tragedy in Ukraine raises stakes

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard the terrible news that a Malaysian Airlines passenger flight was shot down over eastern Ukraine today, killing all 298 people on board. It’s not clear who fired the missile that destroyed MH17 on its route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur (or where it was fired from), nor is it clear why a civilian airliner was flying over a war zone to begin with, let alone one where a number of military aircraft have been shot down in recent days, like the Ukrainian transport that was shot down on Monday and the Ukrainian SU-25 fighter that was reportedly shot down earlier today. Apparently there was a no-fly zone in place over the country, but only up to an altitude that could be reached by the kind of man-portable anti-aircraft units that the Donbas separatists have been using until now. Unfortunately, the rebels had reportedly gotten hold of a Russian-made Buk anti-aircraft battery, either by capturing one from the Ukrainian military or from their Russian backers. The Buk isn’t exactly modern technology (it was developed in 1979), but it’s more than capable of both misidentifying a civilian airliner as a military threat and then shooting that airliner down.

This shoot down was the culmination of a week of deteriorating Ukraine-Russia relations. On Sunday, Russian authorities claimed that a Ukrainian shell hit the Russian border town of Donetsk (same name as the Ukrainian city, in the same general vicinity as the Ukrainian city, but different place), killing one person. Ukraine denied firing the shell. Ukrainian authorities claimed that the missile that shot down their transport plane on Monday was “probably” fired from Russian territory, since the plane was flying too high to have been hit by the portable anti-aircraft missiles used by the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Then, yesterday, an apartment building in the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne was leveled by an airstrike.The rebels blamed the airstrike on Kiev, but the Ukrainian military declared that it had grounded all flights in eastern Ukraine after the transport was shot down on Monday. Also, NATO is claiming that Russia is once again massing troops on the Ukrainian border. In the middle of all of this, today the Obama administration announced new sanctions on Russian banks, Russian energy companies, Russian defense contractors, and individual Ukrainian separatists.

So who shot the plane down? There are three possible culprits: Ukraine, the Donbas separatists, or Russia. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko immediately insisted that his military hadn’t shot the plane down, and while I try to be appropriately skeptical of anything coming out of either Kiev or Moscow, it’s hard to figure how or why Ukraine would have shot this plane down. The rebels have no planes of their own, so there’s not much reason for Ukraine’s air defense network to be on high alert. I guess they could have mistaken it for a Russian aircraft, but presumably MH17 was flying west-to-east, which is kind of the opposite direction from what you would expect a Russian plane to be flying. I guess Ukraine could have shot down a civilian airliner on purpose to make it look like Russia did it, FALSE FLAG-style or whatever, but you’ll have to go to for that kind of stuff. Russian President Vladimir Putin figured out a way to blame Ukraine in, like, an existential way, man, because if Kiev would just have stopped fighting the rebels then this probably wouldn’t have happened. That’s certainly an interesting take, not unlike, say, blaming the Palestinians when four Palestinian kids are killed by an Israeli bomb while playing soccer on the beach.

Kiev, meanwhile, is already accusing Moscow of shooting down its SU-25 fighter, and it’s a short jump from accusing them of that to accusing them of this, but the preponderance of evidence and logic seems to fit the rebels having done this. If the rebels really do have access to a Buk battery, either in Ukraine or over the border in Russia, then a suitably inexperienced rebel operating the missiles could easily have shot the flight down thinking that it was a Ukrainian military plane. Corroborating evidence supports this theory, including an internet posting from a Donbas separatist leader named Strelkov, who is really a former (?) Russian intelligence officer named Igor Girkin, and a couple of phone calls that were supposedly intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence. Then the question becomes how the rebels got the missile system that they used. Was it captured from the Ukrainians? Stolen from the Russians? Or freely given by Russia? If the latter, then in terms of culpability there’s really not much difference between the rebels having shot the plane down and the Russians having done it themselves.

What now? Julia Ioffe argues that this catastrophe is a “game changer” as far as the conflict in Ukraine is concerned, but she’s not entirely sure how the game has been changed. The pressure on Europe to ratchet up sanctions against Russia will only increase over this, which might encourage Putin to really cut ties with the Donbas separatists rather than just sort of casually disengaging himself as he’d been doing until this week. The separatists were already of more use to him as a permanent low-level destabilizing force in Ukraine than as an active rebel army, and if they’ve gotten so far out of hand that they’re now shooting down civilian planes then they may have crossed over into outright liability. On the other hand, Putin being who he is, putting more pressure on him to cut the rebels off might actually encourage him to do exactly the opposite, because that’s what a Man should do to Save Face or whatever macho bullshit he believes.

Speaking of which, John McCain said that “if these are the, quote, ‘separatists,’ which are also Russian [who shot the plane down], Vladimir Putin should be paying a heavy price.” Since my one rule about international affairs is “do the opposite of whatever John McCain says,” I’d say it’s probably a better idea to slow things down at this point, maybe use the tragedy to leverage a ceasefire, do a thorough investigation, and then act cautiously. Maybe if we don’t directly challenge Putin over this right away, he’ll decide he can cut off these troublesome rebels for good and still keep his Man Card.


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