One of the corpses fell through the rickety roof of Irina Tipunova’s house in this sleepy village, just after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 exploded high over eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are fighting government forces.
“There was a howling noise and everything started to rattle. Then objects started falling out of the sky,” the 65-year-old pensioner said in front of her grey-brick home.
“And then I heard a roar and she landed in the kitchen, the roof was broken,” she said, showing the gaping hole made by the body when it came through the ceiling of the kitchen in an extension to the house.
The dead woman’s naked body was still lying inside the house, next to a bed.
Recent history offers two examples in which inadvertent attacks on civilian airliners demonstrated the risks of military confrontation but also led, over time, to a process of sober reflection and eventual de-escalation.
The first such incident was the Sept. 1, 1983 attack that downed Korean Air Lines Flight 007 near Sakahlin Island, a missile testing zone on the far eastern coast of what was then the Soviet Union. The plane was brought down by a Soviet fighter jets, but Moscow initially denied responsibility and then claimed the passenger jet had been on a spy mission. In truth, it was a hideous accident in the fog of the Cold War that illustrated how Moscow and Washington were operating on a hair trigger. The vituperative reaction in Washington led some Soviets to fear that all-out war might be ahead — and this, in turn, contributed to a period of reflection that eventually led both sides to consider new arms control agreements and other measures of détente. Indeed, viewed through history’s lens, you can discern a connection between the KAL shootdown and the eventual end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union…
Nobody knows if the tragic events over eastern Ukraine will lead to wise reflection in Moscow and a move toward de-escalation, or whether tensions will exacerbate even further. Sometimes, disaster makes people stop and think; other times, it just leads to worse disaster. But certainly the loss of the Malaysia Airlines jet should encourage European nations, such as Germany, that sanctions against Russia that push it toward peace are preferable to letting the haphazard process of tit-for-tat continue.
America’s Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, could not have been clearer in apportioning blame in her speech at the Security Council Friday: “Russian can end this war. Russia must end this war.” The result is likely to be a Western ultimatum to Russia to comply with its previous commitments to rein in the separatists and deliver them to the negotiating table. If Putin refuses, the consequences could be twofold.
Why did MH17 fly over a war zone?
The first is that the Ukrainian government would be given a much freer hand to continue and complete its “anti-terror” operations against pro-Russian forces. The second would be a further tightening of Western sanctions. If these included a shift to the long threatened “sector sanctions” covering whole industries, the impact could be severe at a time when the Russian economy is already looking extremely vulnerable.
Having maintained the tactical initiative for most of the last four months, Putin suddenly faces an uncomfortable dilemma. Failure to co-operate in de-escalating the crisis invites the risk of deeper international isolation and real economic pain.
But abandoning the separatists mean a loss of political leverage over Ukraine and an even bigger loss of face at home.
If it has done nothing else, the crash of Flight MH17 has just put an end to the “it’s not a real war” fairy tale, both for the Russians and for the West. Tragically, this unconventional nonwar war has just killed 298 people, mostly Europeans. We can’t pretend it isn’t happening any longer, or that it doesn’t affect anyone outside of Donetsk. The Russians can’t pretend either.
Without the fairy-tale pretense, some things are about to become clear. For one, we are about to learn whether the West in 2014 is as united, and as determined to stop terrorism as it was 26 years ago. When the Libyan government brought down Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, the West closed ranks and isolated the Libyan regime. Can we do the same now—or will too many be tempted to describe this as a “tragic accident,” and to dismiss what will inevitably be a controversial investigation as “inconclusive?” It is insufficient to state, as President Obama has now done, that there must be a “cease-fire” in Ukraine. What is needed is a withdrawal of Russian mercenaries, weapons, and support. The West—and the world—must push for Ukrainian state sovereignty to be reestablished in eastern Ukraine, not for the perpetuation of another frozen conflict.
We will also learn something interesting about the Russian president. 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 has created in eastern Ukraine. He now 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.
The firing of GRAD rockets and the shooting down of a civilian airplane are part of a pattern, a last-ditch desperate attempt to salvage a win in eastern Ukraine at any cost. In the last several weeks, Russia has pumped dozens of tanks, self-powered howitzers, armored vehicles and militants across the border to the Russian-backed insurgents…
But in recent weeks Moscow’s thinkers and pundits have written that they believe Putin’s support could collapse. A failure to achieve further victory in Ukraine has led analysts to predict that Putin’s support could drop significantly, and Russia’s leading pollsters already see evidence that these predictions could be right…
The Russian media landscape is now a nearly unified voice of disinformation and hate, spreading the narrative that the world is locked in a great battle between East and West, a battle which will be lost unless Putin is allowed to win it. With every passing week Putin becomes more like the totalitarian dictators who helped divide the world along these lines just a few generations ago, and he is now a victim of his own mechanisms…
The cycle will continue. Putin’s recklessness in eastern Ukraine will only grow. Many more lives, often of civilians stuck in the crossfire, will be lost. In the warped cycle of disinformation and power that Putin has created, this senseless violence makes perfect sense, and hundreds or even thousands of civilian casualties are just collateral damage.
Once upon a time, there was the Brezhnev Doctrine, which justified as “fraternal help” such actions as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Mikhail S. Gorbachev replaced it with the Sinatra Doctrine —You do it your way, as Gennadi I. Gerasimov, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, put it — toward Eastern Europe. Now we have the Putin Doctrine.
It is impossible to overstate the degree to which this is a threat not just to Russia’s Eastern European and Eurasian neighbors but to the whole post-1945 international order. Across the world, countries see men and women living in other countries whom they regard as in some sense “their people.” What if, as has happened in the past, Chinese minorities in Southeast Asian countries were to be the targets of discrimination and popular anger, and China (where, on a visit this spring, I heard admiration expressed for Mr. Putin’s actions) decided to take up the mother country’s burden, exercising its völkisch responsibility to protect?…
It seems plausible already to suggest that a regular army (whether Ukrainian or Russian) would usually have identified the radar image of a civilian airliner flying at 33,000 feet, while a group made up solely of local militants (even ones with military experience) would not ordinarily have had the technology and skill to launch such an attack without outside help. It is precisely the ambiguous mixtures created by Mr. Putin’s völkisch version of the “responsibility to protect” that produce such disastrous possibilities. He subverts and calls into question the authority of the government of a sovereign territory, and then blames it for the result.
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.
In fact, it’s quite possible the incident won’t change the underlying dynamics in Ukraine that much at all.
As Mark Leon Goldberg smartly points out, “One of the key distinguishing features of the conflict in Ukraine is that the USA and Russia have not been able to agree to a simple set of facts about the crisis.”…
Any smoking-gun evidence tying separatist rebels to the crash or the separatists to Russia will be spun and denied. The rebels will deny they shot down the planem and the Russian government—as it has continually—will deny that it is supporting the rebels…
The incident may result in a temporary lull in violence—separatists are apparently open to a three-day cease-fire—but my guess is that before long the Ukrainian military will restart its offensive against the rebels and, once Ukraine dips out of the headlines a bit, separatist activity including the supplying of fighters with arms from Russia will continue.