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The aftermath of MH17

The massive outpouring of media commentary and analysis following the tragic loss of lives on the downed Dutch airliner has given much pause for thought. Three items in attracted my attention, one from the perspective of misreading the situation, and the second and third offering informed but questionable statements by experts on Ukraine. They provide an introduction for an analysis of the reaction from the Russian side, which seeks to deflect responsibility for the catastrophe from the Kremlin and even from the anti-Ukrainian forces that currently occupy the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which, most sources concur, were responsible for the missile that brought down Flight MH-17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur last Thursday.

Writing in the London Daily Mail, a tabloid better known for its gossip columns than reasoned and informative analysis, Peter Hitchens blames the European Union for the current conflict in Ukraine, maintaining that it was the EU’s expansionism that sparked the insurgence:

[The] aggressor was the European Union, which rivals China as the world’s most expansionist power, swallowing countries the way performing seals swallow fish (16 gulped down since 1995)…. Ignoring repeated and increasingly urgent warnings from Moscow, the EU – backed by the USA – sought to bring Ukraine into its orbit. It did so through violence and illegality, an armed mob and the overthrow of an elected president.

Hitchens presumably suffers from a short memory. Had he contemplated the events of six years ago, namely the Russian war with Georgia that resulted in the defection from that country of two states recognized today by less than five countries—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—he might have recalled why the Eastern Partnership Project (initiated by Poland and Sweden) came into being, and why the EU opted to give states in the neighborhood of Russia some political and economic alternatives. It should be added that the EU has offered membership to none of them. Even if it had, most EU states retain considerable independence, as demonstrated by the recent examples of France selling two Mistral-class warships to Russia and German reluctance to impose more severe sanctions on Moscow. Blaming the EU for the war given its demonstrable lack of participation and restrained sanctions makes no sense.

A more serious analysis of the current troubles is offered by Ivan Katchanovski, writing for The Washington Post blog, who concludes that: “The second-largest country in Europe is now formally in a state of civil war, since the battle-related casualties exceed 1,000, a mark that political scientists and conflict studies scholars often use to formally classify an armed conflict as a civil war.

This statement requires an explanation of how one defines civil war, other than numerically. Which residents of Ukraine are fighting each other? The war began last March with the Russian invasion of Crimea, the most significant alteration of European boundaries since the Second World War (not 1954, since both Ukraine and Russia were part of a single state). Moreover there was a clear continuation of that war into eastern Ukraine, even including the leaders of the invasion forces, such as Igor Girkin (Strelkov), a resident of Moscow. Notably when the Ukrainian army recaptured the former terrorist stronghold of Sloviansk on July 5, the fighting stopped and people returned to the streets.

What Katchanovski’s polls demonstrate is disaffection with Euromaidan and the government installed in Kyiv earlier this year. No doubt that alienation remains in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk—though less so in any other region other than Crimea. But that is not civil war [see also Adrian Karatnycky’s comment at New Republic]. Yaroslav Tynchenko, deputy director of the National Military-History Museum of Ukraine, points out that these three regions, in addition to Kharkiv and Odesa took exception (during Euromaidan in Kyiv) especially to the appearance of the red-black “Bandera” flag, Dmytro Yarosh, portraits of Stepan Bandera, and the party Svoboda and that they neither knew nor understood the “western Ukrainian culture.” As Tynchenko recalled, this situation had prompted the late Viacheslav Chornovil in the early 1990s to advocate a system of federalization for Ukraine. Clearly Euromaidan always had as many opponents as supporters. But civil war requires more than disagreement. After all, the Ukrainian state is approaching its 23rd anniversary.

On the other hand, to state, as Chrystia Freeland did during her CNN debate with Stephen Cohen that Vladimir Putin could end the war “tomorrow,” also seems far-fetched, though in general her comments were much better informed and credible than those of her interlocutor, Stephen Cohen, who took the Ukrainian government to task for liberating its own territory. In fact, Moscow tried to prevent (unsuccessfully) the Donetsk and Luhansk referendums, and it supported, belatedly, the holding of the Ukrainian presidential election, while the militants in these two cities generally obstructed people from voting. In short, while Russia has armed and trained the insurgents, it has not always controlled them. But the looseness of command can be perceived as one of understanding and trust. The occupants of Donetsk and Luhansk would not be there without the bidding and support of the Russian government.

Girkin and his troops—let us call them “anti-Ukrainian forces,” because it seems the most accurate phrase to use (he is not a separatist leader as he is not a resident of Ukraine)—had already shot down two military planes earlier in the week before the downing of the civilian airliner on July 17. They then boasted about the latter event in recorded conversations, released by the Ukrainian SBU, as well as in Girkin’s own diary annotations, before realizing what they had hit. Girkin’s diary seems quite a credible source. He has kept such records in the past, for example during the Bosnian conflict, and his earlier entries of the Ukrainian war were never retracted or amended. That may be because Girkin is a military adventurer who believes his mission is to implant his and Russia’s preferred form of government not only in Ukraine, but worldwide, including places like Syria and the former Yugoslavia. US radar also detected the source of the missile as being close to the village of Hrabove (Donetsk Oblast).

So why cannot Russia and the anti-Ukrainian insurgents acknowledge what they did, explain that it was in error, and express their regrets and apologies to the families of those killed? That should be a simple task. Undoubtedly this is a chaotic scene with many armed groups not necessarily working in unison, as OSCE observer Michael Bociurkiw has pointed out. But a command structure remains in place and a completely disorganized group could not have fired such an advanced weapon. It required training and orders.

Putin’s statement that “the state over whose territory it occurred is responsible for the terrible tragedy” is absurd. By that same token, the United Kingdom was responsible for the Lockerbie plane destroyed by a terrorist bomb in 1988 or Ireland for the 1985 Air India flight, both of which had huge death tolls like MH17. Similarly irresponsible commentary came from RIA Novosti on July 18, which reported that: “there has been no evidence” that Russia has supplied arms to resistance forces in Ukraine, a statement that even the cautious Angela Merkel rejected.

Such denials belittle the Russian president’s expressions of regret at the losses. His general attitude of avoiding responsibility and living in a state of denial is reminiscent of that of another former KGB leader, the ailing Yuri Andropov, after a Soviet jet shot down Korean Air 007 on September 1, 1983 west of Sakhalin Island. The order to do so was given by General Anatoly Kornukhov, who paradoxically died, unrepentant, just three weeks ago. Both Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin had decorated him previously for his loyal service to his homeland.

While it would be facile to deny the one-sidedness of many Western reports on this war, they pale beside the propaganda on the Russian side, which goes well beyond distortion. According to analyst Viktor Ukolov, the campaign is intended to ensure that the Russian military do not have the slightest sympathy for their adversaries when the time comes to “pull the trigger.” They include stories such as the crucifixion of a young child by the Right Sector in Sloviansk. The campaign’s impact has extended to more peaceful parts of Ukraine. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has declared it a war for the minds of people that is having a pernicious effect on his country.

As for Russian residents, as a Radio Liberty report by Robert Coalson noted recently, a June opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center, 90% of Russian residents obtain their news directly from Russian Television, and over 50% rely on a single source. A further 60% considered the treatment of Ukraine to be objective. There is little question therefore that Russians believe what they hear. But it is also a campaign that has entrapped the Russian leadership as well: once initiated it is difficult to stop, and it undermines any attempts at compromise once the enemy [Ukraine] is portrayed as a “neo-Nazi Junta,” a depiction incidentally that has found its way onto the Facebook and Twitter sites of many gullible Westerners, despite a presidential election in which rightist forces were heavily defeated and a forthcoming parliamentary election in the fall.

It is this sort of mindset that has brought about the callous and otherwise unfathomable reaction to the loss of MH17 and its innocent passengers, accompanied by a plethora of conspiracy theories, aspersions on the Ukrainian government, and of course denial of complicity on the part of Russia and its allies. Ultimately the first way out of this maze of fabrications and distortions is quite simple: an admission of guilt and open access to the crash scene. Very few observers believe that those who launched the missile deliberately fired on a civilian airliner—even including a Canadian analyst who describes the tragedy as a war crime and “mass murder.” On the other hand, the tragedy is a result of escalation of the war by Russia and its anti-Ukrainian insurgents inside Ukraine, most of which are Russian-led and armed. Its impact is exacerbated and deepened by the continuing denials of guilt from the Russian president and his ministers.

[hr] Article was originally published here
*The author expresses his gratitude to Eduard Baidaus, PhD candidate, University of Alberta, for his assistance on this essay.

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