The Consequences of MH17 for Ukraine (and Russia)

In the latest escalation in Ukraine, today a civilian airliner was shot down with a surface-to-air missile over Donetsk, killing all 295 people aboard.  It’s not clear yet what happened, but the explanation seems obvious – Russia gave jumpy, poorly-trained separatists heavy anti-aircraft systems (along with, probably, some trained operators, because you can’t exactly pick those things up and figure it out).  These separatists see a blip on the radar and fire enthusiastically without realizing it’s a civilian plane.  As the narrative is pieced together, I would be very surprised if we discover otherwise.

The crisis in Ukraine has officially spiraled completely out of control.  Over the past few weeks or so, Russian involvement has become more and more overt – yesterday evidence emerged of a Russian jet shooting down a Ukrainian plane, and Russian artillery shelling the Ukrainian army.  The two countries are very close to a de facto state of war, and a de jure state of war might not be far off.  I agree with Julia Ioffe – this incident is clearly a game changer, but it’s not immediately clear how.  However, the crisis has obviously entered a more volatile and less predictable phase that should worry everyone.

Americans should reevaluate the reputation of Vladimir Putin as an evil genius; for the last six months his behavior has been reactive and panicky. First, he lost his client state in Ukraine by pushing too hard against EU association.  He successfully claimed Crimea, but seems to have cemented the dominance of the pro-Western faction in Ukraine for the foreseeable future.  Vladimir Putin might have thought his backing of separatist rebels was a clever low-cost way to encourage the new Ukrainian government to fall into line, but as fighting escalated he has lost any control he might have had over the situation.  This incident was a shocking blow to his position; meaningful EU sanctions are much more likely than yesterday.  This is all a bad thing – the combination of reactive, panicky, and backed into a corner is terrifyingly unpredictable.

In my view, this incident substantially increases the chance of an overt Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine.  Putin has completely lost control of the irregulars he has armed, and crucially has now done so very publicly.  He must be considering whether it is possible to disarm the rebels before they do something else that will so drastically compromise Russia’s international position, the economy, and potentially even his grip on power.  Unfortunately for him, a “peacekeeping operation” will now be even more vilified internationally than if he had launched one yesterday.  He’s in a very tight spot, which should frighten everyone involved.

Also, incidentally, try and extrapolate from this incident to policy for the US.  Putin was transferring arms to well-known actors immediately on the other side of his border, with defined objectives, trained fighters, and Russian intelligence handlers heavily involved.  Do you think we will have substantially more control or influence over Syrian rebels?

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