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Downing of Plane Shows West Cannot Ignore Russia-Ukraine Escalation

On September 1, 1983, Soviet fighter aircraft shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 which had inadvertently entered Soviet airspace on its way from Anchorage to Seoul. All 269 people on board were killed. President Reagan swiftly condemned “this crime against humanity,” which only redoubled his desire to bring down the “evil empire” (as he had called the Soviet Union earlier that year).

We can only hope for similar moral clarity today from the U.S. and Europe in the aftermath of the equally outrageous shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine with 295 people on board including more than 20 American citizens. The exact circumstances remain murky, but there is a strong circumstantial case, based on what we already know, that this was the work of pro-Russian separatist rebels who had been provided by the Kremlin with an advanced Buk anti-aircraft missile system. As Julia Ioffe of the New Republic notes, “there are now screenshots floating around the Russian-language internet from what seems to be the Facebook page of Igor Strelkov, a rebel leader in eastern Ukraine, showing plumes of smoke and bragging about shooting down a Ukrainian military Antonov plane shortly before MaH 17 fell. ‘Don’t fly in our skies,’ he reportedly wrote. If that’s true, it would seem rebels downed the jetliner, having mistaken it for a Ukrainian military jet.”

Certainly it would not be surprising to see the rebels, or their Russian sponsors, shooting down suspected Ukrainian aircraft. In fact, just before the Malaysian airliner went down, the Ukrainian government had accused a Russian fighter plane of shooting down one of its own fighters in Ukrainian airspace on Wednesday. Just a few days before that, Ukraine accused Russian rebels of shooting down a Ukrainian transport aircraft.

This is becoming rather too regular an occurrence to be ignored. The deaths of all those innocent passengers and crew aboard the Malaysian aircraft, who were in no way party to this conflict, makes it impossible for the West to look away from Russian aggression or for Russia to escape culpability. Even if the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft was accidental and not ordered by the Kremlin, as seems likely, Vladimir Putin is nevertheless ultimately responsible. If you hand a bazooka to a hyperactive teenager and he destroys your neighbor’s house, the person providing the weapon is just as culpable as the one firing it.

And there is no doubt that anti-aircraft missiles, along with tanks and other advanced weaponry, have been provided to pro-Russian separatists, many of them Russian citizens and even members of the Russian intelligence and military services, by the Russian state. You don’t pick up an anti-aircraft missile at your local military surplus store the way you might an AK-47.

The question now is what we–meaning we in the West–are going to do about this outrageous act of villainy. John McCain said that if Russian involvement is proved, there will be “hell to pay.” I certainly hope so. What would this “hell” consist of?

No one is contemplating the use of Western military force against Russia or even Russian separatists in Ukraine, but certainly there is much that the U.S. and its European allies could do to provide military equipment and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to enable them to defeat Putin’s minions–something that we have been afraid to do until now for fear of triggering Russian escalation. As if shooting down civilian aircraft isn’t escalation enough.

There is also a need, as I have written before, to station substantial numbers of American ground forces in frontline NATO states including Poland and the Baltics to make clear that they will stand up to Russian aggression if directed their way. Seeing U.S. troops on his doorstep is pretty much the last thing Putin wants, and that’s precisely why we should do so. In addition the U.S. needs to end its ill-considered military drawdown and rebuild our strength to confront our enemies as Ronald Reagan did.

Finally the U.S. and Europe need to beef up their limited slate of sanctions against Russia. Just yesterday President Obama announced fresh sanctions against several Russian financial institutions and oil and gas producers which are, inter alia, being barred from the U.S. market. This stops well short of the “sectoral” sanctions on the Russian financial and energy sectors that President Obama had previously threatened, and the European Union pusillanimously refused to go even that far. The EU only promised to block future loans for projects in Russia by European development banks. Perhaps now the EU will get off its knees and join the U.S. in truly broad sanctions that will do real damage to the Russian economy.

Oh and perhaps now the French government will consider not delivering to Russia two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that will considerably enhance Moscow’s ability to terrorize its neighbors.

I say “perhaps” advisedly because this is what should happen–but probably won’t. Even now there will be voices of detente cautioning that we don’t want to “isolate” or “corner” Russia. But if the murder of 295 innocents is not enough for the West to finally stand up to Russia’s barely disguised aggression in Ukraine, it is hard to know what it will take.


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