A myriad of investigators have descended upon Ukraine ostensibly to find out what happened to the downed Malaysian plane. But much is already plain: pro-Russian separatists, trained by Russia and utilizing Russian supplied antiaircraft weapons, mistakenly believed they were aiming at a Ukraine military aircraft.
Separatists had shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft earlier in the week. As soon as the Malaysian plane went down, they boasted on a blog about having taken out another Ukrainian military aircraft. Once the true identity became known, the piece was removed from the blog.
The mistake may cause some to dismiss this incident as a tragic accident. Far from it. Creating, arming, and training of the separatists manifests a deliberate Russian strategy to destabilize and neuter the Ukrainian government. Annexing the Crimea was execution of the same strategy. A Ukraine well-integrated into Western Europe is anathema to Russia.
Other than Russia itself, Ukraine was the most important component of the Soviet Union. Putin famously lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical catastrophe. Of all forces propelling the unravelling, none was more significant than Ukraine’s desire for independence.
The present crisis in Ukraine arose from Russian efforts to manipulate Ukraine’s posture toward the West. Expected to sign an agreement with the European Union, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich backed away under Russian pressure. A popular uprising centered in Kiev brought Yanukovich down. Its policy to cajole Ukraine in shambles, Moscow embarked on more potent methods. Hiving off the Crimea and standing up separatist forces in eastern Ukraine followed.
Western pressure has thus far been modest, and absolutely ineffectual in altering Russian policy. A leading reason is that, for Russia, Ukraine is a “core interest.” The modern Russian state was born more than a thousand years ago in the Kievan Rus. Russia’s stake in Ukraine is great, dominating Western countermeasures.
The US government, and more importantly, the Europeans whose people were murdered are considering what, if any, responsive action to take. The Europeans are also weighing the economic consequences of angering President Putin.
If they are expecting contrition from Putin, they will be sadly mistaken. He will try to avoid responsibility for the incident, but his objectives remain firm.
Options exist for action against Putin, including, increased military support for Ukraine and increased sanctions. Whether the US and Europeans have the will to take these, in sufficient measure to affect Russian policy, remains to be seen.