Conflict & Justice

You’d hate to be Putin right now



Dominique Faget

MOSCOW, Russia — Circumstances surrounding the apparent downing on Thursday of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet over the skies of war-torn eastern Ukraine remain murky, but however inconclusive the evidence, much of the world appears to have arrived at one point: blame Russia.

Fallout from the crash of flight MH17 — which killed all 298 passengers — is consolidating international anger at Moscow over its alleged support of the separatist rebels in Ukraine, and appears to mark a watershed moment in a months-long crisis that had earlier left much of the West stumped over how to respond.

While the war of words is bound to intensify, with Russia and Ukraine trading accusations of responsibility for the disaster, many observers say the Kremlin should be prepared to pay for the incident.

“Because it is Moscow, despite the numerous denials from its representatives, which is perceived by the entire world to be [the separatists’] main protector and sponsor,” Konstantin von Eggert, a Russian international affairs commentator, said in a Friday broadcast on Kommersant FM radio.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine reached a fever pitch this week after a series of mysterious air strikes and artillery attacks fueled a diplomatic row between the two countries and hurled them closer to the brink of open conflict.

But Thursday’s crash — which killed 189 Dutch nationals and a number of other foreign citizens — marked the first time international actors became directly involved in the crisis, raising the stakes in a geopolitical conflict that seems likely to only worsen.

It also arrived a day after Washington leveled its toughest sanctions yet against Russia, which were mirrored by less stringent European Union sanctions that were approved despite a split in the EU over how to react to Russia’s alleged interference in Ukraine.

There’s still little hard evidence available from the separatist-controlled crash site, where rebels say they’ve agreed to allow a team of international investigators to the area.

But international condemnation has nevertheless been swift.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot had perhaps the toughest words for Moscow on Friday, claiming Russia’s response is “deeply, deeply unsatisfactory,” the Associated Press reported him as saying.

Meanwhile, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in televised remarks late Thursday that there has been “growing awareness” that the apparent strike “probably had to be Russian insurgents.”

“How we determine that will require some forensics, but then if there is evidence pointing in that direction, the equipment had to have come from Russia,” she said in an interview on the Charlie Rose Show.

For its part, Moscow has shot back, using its state-run media arsenal to level claims against Kyiv.

Since the crash, state television here — the main source of news for a majority of Russians — has aired reports suggesting a variety of possible causes, although seemingly tiptoeing around any implication of the rebels.

Some reports hinted that the Ukrainians had mistakenly shot down the airliner by highlighting a similar case from 2001, when Kyiv admitted it had unintentionally downed a civilian plane.

There were also suggestions the alleged Ukrainian missile had actually been aimed at the Russian presidential plane as it flew back from Brazil, a claim based on a single anonymous source in a wire report but cited widely on state television.

In a video posted to the Kremlin’s website, President Vladimir Putin laid the blame squarely on Ukrainian authorities, although he stopped short of accusing the military of shooting down the jet.

“I want to note that this tragedy wouldn’t have occurred if there had been peace on this land and hostilities hadn’t been renewed in Ukraine’s southeast,” he said at a government meeting.

“And of course the government on whose territory this occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy.”

Regardless, the incident has shifted even more scrutiny onto the armed rebels — cast by Moscow as righteous “anti-government protesters” — that have laid siege on Ukraine’s two rebellious, easternmost regions.

They’ve been beaten back in recent weeks by Ukrainian military forces but continue to control a large swath of land, including the two regional capitals, and have boasted of downing numerous Ukrainian military aircraft.

Ukrainian officials and their Western allies have long asserted that Ukraine’s porous border with Russia has served as a crucial transit corridor for armaments of all kinds as well as volunteer fighters that filter in from Russian territory.

So far, only YouTube clips and other unconfirmed social media reports attest to the movement of tanks and other heavy weaponry across the border, with independent confirmation nearly impossible since rebels still control considerable territory.

Still, experts now believe Russia will be forced into backing away from its alleged support of the rebels, rendering what Mark Galeotti, a security expert at New York University, says may be the beginning of the end for the insurgency.

“Especially given the presence of Americans and other Westerners on MH17, the Kremlin will, for all its immediate and instinctive bluster and spin, have to definitively and overtly withdraw from arming and protecting the rebels,” he wrote on Thursday.

But that may further inflame tensions between Moscow and the rebel leadership, which has openly maligned Putin’s refusal to offer greater support for their cause since the uprising began.

The Kremlin declined to recognize their independence referenda in May and stopped short of repeating the scenario in Crimea, which Russia annexed earlier this year, something the insurgents had hoped would also happen in eastern Ukraine.

But those moves appear only to have strengthened their resolve in the fight against Ukrainian forces, amounting to what some believe to be an increasingly uncontrollable Frankenstein monster that has thrust Russia — intentionally or not — into a tight spot.

More from GlobalPost: Officials believe MH17 was shot down over Ukraine. But by whom? (LIVE BLOG)

In Kyiv, meanwhile, Ukraine’s post-revolutionary authorities are likely to receive a renewed boost in support from their Western allies, the result of a disaster experts say may have played into their hands.

Vadim Karasyov, a Kyiv-based political analyst, says Poroshenko had been stuck in a “dead end,” torn between a mounting military death toll and the perceived impossibility of negotiating with the separatists.

But the Malaysian Airlines disaster presented a “Rubicon” in what seemed like a stalemate, he added.

“It will bump the sequence of events toward a settlement of the conflict in Ukraine’s interests.”