Commentary Magazine


Topic: MH17

Will the Russian Army March into Ukraine?

It scarcely seems possible, but the situation in Ukraine keeps getting worse.

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It scarcely seems possible, but the situation in Ukraine keeps getting worse.

First Vladimir Putin let loose his “little green men”–a collection of Russian intelligence agents and military personnel along with a sprinkling of locals–to stir up a separatist rebellion in Crimea. Then after a bogus referendum held under Russian guns, he brazenly annexed Crimea, as flagrant a violation of international law as it is possible to imagine. Next he instigated another faux rebellion in eastern Ukraine led by Russian citizens, many of them current or former Russian military and intelligence personnel.

The pro-Russian rebels managed to carve out a quasi-independent region in eastern Ukraine where there is a substantial Russian-speaking population even if previous public opinion polls had indicated little support for breaking away from Ukraine. When the elected government in Kiev began to fight back against the rebels with some success, Putin provided them with heavier weapons including the sophisticated Buk or SA-11 air-defense system which brought down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, killing some 300 people on board.

Instead of apologizing for this war crime committed by his stooges, Putin has spun elaborate fantasies about how the Malaysian aircraft was really brought down by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft battery or fighter aircraft, even though U.S. intelligence and every other reputable observer has provided ample evidence that the foul deed was committed by a missile fired from the territory controlled by Russian separatists. Then the Russian rebels had the gall to deny international investigators access to the crash site and to actually loot the belongings of the innocent victims.

Far from chastened in the aftermath of the Malaysian Airlines tragedy, Putin is actually escalating his aggression. On Wednesday two Ukrainian fighter aircraft were shot down over their own airspace, with Kiev alleging that the shots came from the Russian side of the border. The State Department reports that in recent days artillery in Russia has been pounding Ukrainian positions and that Russia is now supplying the rebels with heavier weapons including tanks and rocket launchers. Speculation is rife that Putin may order the Russian army into Ukraine or that, at the very least, his proxies will stage a major offensive.

It is simply incredible that this is happening in the Europe of 2014–the land of the euro and the Eurovision song contest, of espresso and Bordeaux, of long vacations and short work weeks. Wasn’t Europe supposedly entering an era beyond power politics and certainly beyond war?

Recent events sound like something out of the 1930s, the dark years when brazen predators picked off countries at will: Czechoslovakia, Austria, Abyssinia (Ethiopia), China all fell while the League of Nations and the “international community” stood by, helpless and hapless, paralyzed, not knowing what to do. Putin is no Hitler or Tojo or Mussolini, but there are echoes of these outrageous events in his reckless disregard for the norms of international conduct.

What is even more incredible is that the democracies of the West, which together are infinitely richer and stronger than Russia, cannot muster the will to do anything to stop Putin’s offensive. Germany doesn’t want to lose access to Russian natural gas. France doesn’t want to lose the revenues from selling Russia two amphibious assault ships. Britain doesn’t want to lose the ability to attract Russian money to the City of London. And the U.S.? Well, President Obama appears to be too busy attending fundraisers to formulate a coherent response to Putin’s villainy.

I am normally an optimist–a half-glass-full kind of guy. But faced with the evil let loose from the Kremlin–and the cowardice with which it has been met in the West–it is hard not to despair for the future of Ukraine, of Europe, of the United States, and indeed the world. Perhaps I am being melodramatic but I am simply being driven to despair by the events of recent months.

It is hard to watch the international system disintegrate into chaos–not only in Ukraine but also in Iraq and Syria–while ordinary Americans and Europeans heedlessly enjoy the dog days of summer. It is hard not to think of another summer 100 years ago when illusions were shattered by the roar of guns. Today, however, the guns are roaring and the illusions of the West remain firmly intact.

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The Putin Doctrine

Back in March, Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten had a fascinating guest post at the Washington Post’s political science blog, making a noteworthy claim. She wrote that Vladimir Putin had made a subtle, but crucial, adjustment in his speech patterns when discussing his country and his countrymen.

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Back in March, Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten had a fascinating guest post at the Washington Post’s political science blog, making a noteworthy claim. She wrote that Vladimir Putin had made a subtle, but crucial, adjustment in his speech patterns when discussing his country and his countrymen.

“There are two ways to talk about a Russian person or thing in the Russian language,” Marten explained. “One way, ‘Rossisskii,’ refers to Russian citizens and the Russian state. Someone who is ethnically Chechen, Tatar, or Ukrainian can be ‘Rossisskii’ if they carry a Russian passport and live on Russian territory.” That was how Putin had been referring to Russians. He was the leader of the Russian state, and his language reflected that. But then, Marten wrote, “Instead of sticking to the word ‘Rossisskii,’ he slipped into using ‘Russkii,’ the way to refer in the Russian language to someone who is ethnically Russian.”

This was significant especially because of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. According to Marten, Putin was signaling that he was driven by ethnic Russian nationalism–a figure to whom ethnicity, not borders, is the key determinant of his behavior toward others. The consequences could be severe, Marten wrote:

It is no longer far-fetched to think that Ukraine might go the way of the former Yugoslavia, as German journalist Jochen Bittner argued in Tuesday’s New York Times. The possibility of ethnically motivated violence there looms on the horizon.

It is useful to look back on Marten’s post in the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in eastern Ukraine. The plane was, it appears, shot down by Ukrainian separatists loyal to Putin who had supplied them with the weapon that shot down the civilian airliner. It resulted in the deaths of about 300 innocent travelers whose plane might have been mistaken by the rebels for a Ukrainian military plane.

Putin, of course, blamed the West. But now it seems Putin the ethnic nationalist has taken yet another step toward war with Ukraine. While the downing of the plane involved Russian weapons and commanders crossing the border into Ukraine and then firing away, Reuters reports that the State Department has evidence the Russian military is shelling the Ukrainian military from Russian territory.

The erasure of borders, of course, started long ago–before Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. Russia did, after all, invade Georgia in 2008 in the culmination of a decade-long escalation of Russian hostilities and attacks against Georgia, which included installing Russian commanders in Georgian separatist communities. Putin’s playbook has been relatively stable, so perhaps Marten’s linguistic analysis shows that Putin is not changing tactics but aligning his rhetoric with action.

And even if ethnic nationalism provides an explanation for Putin’s actions, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a strategy. In a jarring cover story for Time, Simon Shuster lays out the Putin approach to managing world affairs:

The 21st century czar has mastered the dark art of stirring up problems that only he can solve, so that Western leaders find themselves scolding him one minute while pleading with him the next. The crisis in Syria last year is a perfect example. He supplied weapons and training for the armies of President Bashar Assad, propping up the tyrant while Western statesmen demanded Assad’s ouster. Yet when Assad crossed the “red line” drawn by Obama and used chemical weapons against his own people, Putin stepped in to broker the solution. At the urging of the Russian President, Assad gave up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In turn, the U.S. backed away from air strikes in Syria. And guess who still reigns in Damascus? Putin’s ally Assad.

Other world leaders try to avoid crises; Putin feasts on them. When a pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine, Putin dashed in to annex the region of Crimea–an act that redrew the borders of Europe and snatched away Ukraine’s territorial jewel. Within a month, Western diplomats began stuffing the issue into the past. Why? Because by then, Russia had stolen a march on eastern Ukraine, giving the West another crisis to deal with–and another problem that only Putin could reconcile. He made a show of pulling Russian troops back a short distance from the border with Ukraine, but Russian arms and trainers kept the separatists supplied for the fight. And when the fighting produced the macabre spectacle of the rotting corpses, once again the instigator was in the driver’s seat.

It’s a strategy that has so far worked. And this afternoon’s news fits right in. When Putin needs a distraction–and he certainly needs a distraction from MH17, which has caused ripples of outrage in his direction–he simply causes more mischief.

The West routinely gets caught off-guard by Putin’s provocations. And while he may not be totally predictable, there does seem to be a method to his madness. His strategy of causing trouble in one place to distract from the mayhem in another tells us what he might do, and his ethnic nationalism gives us at least a ballpark estimate of where. If Shuster and Marten are correct, Putin is far from finished.

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Putin, Europe, and Historical Amnesia

The day that pro-Russian separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner last week, I wrote a lengthy item outlining the steps that needed to be taken in response–everything from providing arms and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to slapping stiffer sanctions on Russian trade. Since then Russia’s proxies have further aggravated the situation by delaying access to the crash site to investigators and apparently looting many of the victims’ belongings.

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The day that pro-Russian separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner last week, I wrote a lengthy item outlining the steps that needed to be taken in response–everything from providing arms and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to slapping stiffer sanctions on Russian trade. Since then Russia’s proxies have further aggravated the situation by delaying access to the crash site to investigators and apparently looting many of the victims’ belongings.

It’s been less than a full week since the crash happened, so perhaps the appropriate Western response is still coming. I hope so. But it sure doesn’t look like it. Instead the West appears to be as pusillanimous as ever in the face of Russian aggression.

A meeting of European Union foreign ministers could not even agree to impose an arms embargo on Russia, because the French don’t want to refund 1.1 billion euros ($1.5 billion) that Russia has paid for the first of two Mistral-class amphibious assault warships due to be delivered in October. “We should have had an arms embargo quite some time ago,” said Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister. “To deliver arms to Russia in this situation is somewhat difficult to defend, to put it mildly.”

Just as difficult to comprehend is Europe’s willingness to continue serving as a financial outlet for rich Russians and big Russian companies. British Prime Minister David Cameron talks tough (“Russia cannot expect to continue enjoying access to European markets, European capital, European knowledge and technical expertise while she fuels conflict in one of Europe’s neighbors”), but he’s not rushing to impose unilateral sanctions on Russia either–something that could bite given the level of Russian investment in the City of London as well as in British properties of various sorts ranging from football clubs to swank apartments.

Naturally Europeans offer lots of excuses for inaction–for example one hears that sanctions now would lead Putin’s minions to discontinue their cooperation with crash-site investigators. Note how something that should be done as a matter of course–giving investigators access to a crime scene–is now being held hostage to the whims of drunken Russian thugs.

The U.S. is little better. While President Obama has imposed slightly stiffer sanctions than the Europeans, even he has not ordered the kind of “sectoral” sanctions that he has threatened (another red line crossed with impunity!). Only such sanctions would really punish Russia by denying Russian companies and individuals access to U.S. financial markets and to dollar-denominated trades.

All of this is entirely predictable, of course, but dismaying nevertheless. In a sense, the worse that Russian misconduct is, the less likely it is to be punished because the more evil that Putin does–the more territory his minions seize, the more innocents they kill–the more that the Europeans are afraid to provoke him. He’s a bad man, they figure; why mess with him?

The result, of course, is only to encourage Putin to commit further crimes. We’ve seen this movie before–it played across the continent in the 1930s and it didn’t have a happy ending. It says something about our historical amnesia that we are so ready to watch a repeat performance.

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Israel, the FAA, and International Isolation

For years, peace processors and pundits have threatened that to stop its “growing international isolation,” Israel must make “painful concessions” and withdraw from territory. The “growing isolation” was always a myth. Israel’s trade with Europe has grown constantly in recent years, even as it developed new markets and ties in Asia. Tourism has reached record levels almost every year, as has the number of Israelis traveling abroad. Except to those sensitive to the movements of postmodern dance troupes, the international isolation was a chimera.

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For years, peace processors and pundits have threatened that to stop its “growing international isolation,” Israel must make “painful concessions” and withdraw from territory. The “growing isolation” was always a myth. Israel’s trade with Europe has grown constantly in recent years, even as it developed new markets and ties in Asia. Tourism has reached record levels almost every year, as has the number of Israelis traveling abroad. Except to those sensitive to the movements of postmodern dance troupes, the international isolation was a chimera.

Now, however, international isolation has truly arrived–not from holding territory, but from leaving it. With the suspension of American and European flights to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, rockets from Gaza yielded what peace processors said settlement construction would. The flight suspension by all major airlines is a major–even if temporary–economic, diplomatic, and psychological setback for Israel. It finds itself, for the moment, in same position as Iraq, Libya, and Somalia.

The subtext here is that Israel has a sword at its neck: face a private-sector no-fly zone or agree to a cease-fire that lets Hamas keep its rockets, and thus close Ben Gurion Airport again at the time of its choosing. It is a lose-lose proposition.

Yes, Israel faces international isolation–as a consequence of its attempts to avoid international isolation. Of course, nuanced thinkers are already explaining why this should not prejudice further, massive territorial withdraws from the hills immediately overlooking Ben Gurion Airport and the coastal plain.

Everyone is jittery from the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine, they will say. If so, Hamas has succeeded in turning Israel into Donetsk. Moreover, the timing of the FAA’s absurd and unjustified warning seems to have more to do with Kerry’s visit to the region to impose a cease-fire on Israel. Until his administration’s flight ban, that effort seemed entirely futile.

The West Bank is vastly larger and closer to central Israel than Gaza. What Hamas could do periodically and with great difficulty will be a daily occurrence. Israel would be able to survive, but with a sword at its neck, and on terms constantly dictated by the Palestinians, and whoever is ultimately in charge of the FAA.

Indeed, the decision-making behind the FAA ban demands investigation. Ben Gurion remains an extremely safe airport. The FAA had many various measures short of a flight ban, like warnings, that it could have imposed. The FAA only warns airlines about flying to Afghanistan; it does not ban them. And the FAA move comes the day after a general State Department warning about Israel–though far more people were killed in Chicago on Fourth of July weekend than in the Jewish state since the start of the Gaza campaign.

Whatever the intent, the administration has cornered Israel in a booby-trapped tunnel, with Hamas on one side, and economic perdition on the other.

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Britain’s Latest Rebuke to Putin Is Personal

When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

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When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

But then nothing happened, and for some reason Obama went back out Monday and gave another, quite similar statement, imploring Vladimir Putin to cooperate. It was unclear why the president saw fit to give a second statement at all if not to announce new punitive action toward Russia. We already knew he (correctly) blamed Putin; repeating it without action only calls attention to the lack of action.

Which is what makes today’s announcement by Britain’s government at first welcome, but also a bit puzzling. The Wall Street Journal reports that European countries have tightened sanctions on Russia, but Britain is going a step farther: the British government has ordered a full investigation into the 2006 poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, presumably by Russian agents:

Litvinenko’s excruciating death and Russia’s refusal to extradite the chief suspect, a career Russian security officer, plunged relations between London and the Kremlin to a post-Cold War low from which they have yet to fully recover.

Last July the government refused to open an inquiry, which promises to go further than the initial inquest by looking into who was to blame, with Mrs. May saying international relations had been a factor in the decision. But in February the High Court ordered the Home Secretary to review her decision following a challenge by Marina Litvinenko, the widow of the former agent of Russia’s FSB agency.

The British government had thus far opposed the kind of formal inquiry that would include classified information. Prime Minister David Cameron says the timing of the decision is purely coincidental, of course.

Litvinenko was a critic of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. Putin ran the FSB before becoming Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister and then president. Litvinenko’s criticism of Putin was about more than just corruption, however. He alleged that Putin was behind the series of domestic apartment bombings in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen terrorists and used, in part, as a casus belli for the Second Chechen War. Putin’s direction of that war probably sealed his victory as president in 2000, so the accusation undercuts Putin’s legitimacy and suggests his entire public career was a lie–meaning Putin was never anything more than a fraud and a terrorist.

People who said such things about Putin tended to have reduced life expectancy. In November 2006, a month after investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, Litvinenko was poisoned using the radioactive substance polonium-210 in London. The trail of evidence led to another former Russian KGB agent, who Putin refuses to extradite. In an effort to stay on Putin’s good side, Cameron has not pressed the issue, but now appears to have had a change of heart. Opening the files for a thorough investigation, however, was never without some risk, as the New York Times explains:

Plans to hold an inquest led by a senior judge, Sir Robert Owen, were dropped after the British Foreign Office invoked national security interests to prevent the inquest from even considering whether Moscow had played a part in the killing or whether British intelligence could have prevented it.

The judge said last year that the restrictions made it impossible to hold a “fair and fearless” inquest, and he urged the establishment of a public inquiry that would be empowered to hold closed-door sessions about possible involvement by the Kremlin or MI6, the British overseas intelligence agency. Ms. Litvinenko has said her husband was a paid agent of MI6 at the time he was killed. He and his family had been granted British citizenship weeks before his death.

It’s doubtful Cameron would be unaware of the sealed intel or that he would embarrass the UK just to take a jab at Putin. So it seems as though Cameron was, indeed, waiting for the right time to play this card.

Which raises the following question. If and when this inquest concludes that Moscow was behind this egregious violation of British sovereignty and security, what would Cameron do? Litvinenko was a British citizen, murdered on British soil, presumably at the direction of the Kremlin. If that’s confirmed, people will expect more than pointing fingers. Western leaders’ habit of honestly and openly blaming Putin for his misdeeds is halfway there. It’s the other half–the actions that follow the words–that people get tired of waiting for.

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Why Is Aeroflot Still Flying?

The cleanup and recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back militias, commanded by former Russian intelligence officers, using Russian-supplied equipment shot down the flight, killing almost 300, including 80 children. The White House is hemming and hawing about a tough reply, seemingly confusing talking about a response with actually responding.

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The cleanup and recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back militias, commanded by former Russian intelligence officers, using Russian-supplied equipment shot down the flight, killing almost 300, including 80 children. The White House is hemming and hawing about a tough reply, seemingly confusing talking about a response with actually responding.

While this is ongoing, Aeroflot—Russia’s national airline—is still flying over American and European airspace. Perhaps if President Obama and European leaders really wanted to make Vladimir Putin understand how unacceptable it was to down this aircraft, it is time for U.S. and European officials to deny Aeroflot overflight rights. When Russia comes clean and Putin makes amends for the Russian militia’s actions, perhaps there can be some discussion about allowing Russian airliners to again traverse European and American airspace.

Now certainly Putin will bluster and bloviate—he does that all the time—and he may also lash out at American and European carriers. But I suspect a lot more travelers want to leave Russia than enter it. The children of Russian elite often study in the West, and their families like to visit them. And, in August, Russians–like many in Europe–like to take vacations down to the Mediterranean or Algarve, if not to Disneyland. If they have to choose Sochi instead for the next year or two, so be it.

Putin plays hardball, while Obama waves his wiffle ball bat. While Obama sees international relations as a platform upon which to compromise, Putin sees it as a zero-sum game where he wins and the weak lose. Perhaps it’s time that the White House and State Department to stop treating leverage as a dirty word, and actually start to wield it.

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Why Should Denial of Access to MH17 Matter?

In the days since the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines 17 over eastern Ukraine, the press and many diplomats have been consumed with questioning whether Russians or pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down the civilian jetliner. With all due respect, any answer is a distinction without a difference. To ascribe any degree of independent thought to the pro-Russian separatists is to be played for fools by Russia itself. Indeed, it is a common practice among rogue regimes to sponsor proxies to enable plausible deniability.

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In the days since the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines 17 over eastern Ukraine, the press and many diplomats have been consumed with questioning whether Russians or pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down the civilian jetliner. With all due respect, any answer is a distinction without a difference. To ascribe any degree of independent thought to the pro-Russian separatists is to be played for fools by Russia itself. Indeed, it is a common practice among rogue regimes to sponsor proxies to enable plausible deniability.

The fighters in Donetsk are to Russia what Hezbollah is to Iran. Rather than give the Kremlin an out for the actions of anyone under separatist leader Igor Girkin who, according to press reports, was a member of the KGB-successor agency the FSB until last year, the proper response would be to acknowledge that the buck stops with Vladimir Putin. If Putin did not want to risk such accountability, then he shouldn’t tolerate, channel, or use men such as Girkin to advance Russian policy.

Nor should there be such handwringing over the denial of access to investigators seeking to investigate the wreckage. Would it be better if such investigations occurred unimpeded? Sure. But rather than allow Russia and its proxies to avoid accountability by undercutting the investigation into the murder of all those onboard MH17, the United States, Europe, and Malaysia should simply declare that Girkin and Putin will be considered guilty unless there is immediate access to the crash scene. To worry about access highlights one more reason why terrorism—and, make no mistake, this was an act of terror—should be considered a military matter and not a judicial issue to be subject to judicial standards of evidence. Even for those who favor process over justice and who are prone to see the shoot-down through the lens of criminality, then perhaps a better analogy would be to consider the case of a suspected drunk driver who refuses a Breathalyzer test. No policeman or court would agree that refusal to take the breath test would mandate a not-guilty verdict to drunk driving.

It’s understandable that air disaster investigators want as clean a process as possible to their investigation. But if that is not possible for geopolitical reasons, then rather than allow Russia to avoid accountability, it is time to respond—economically against Russia and perhaps with unilateral action against the Donestk commanders without any further delay. After all, only the guilty would impede the investigation, so such impediment should be taken for what it is—an admission of guilt.

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