Why is Vladimir Putin calling down upon himself the ire of the world by failing to help secure the crash site of MH-17 for international investigators? The answer, I think, is pretty obvious. He does not want to demonstrate how much influence, if not control, Russia has over events in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s response has been to blame the government in Kiev and hold it responsible for the situation.
Since the fall of the Moscow-backed regime in Kiev, it has been Russian policy to destabilize its neighbour so as to discredit and weaken the pro-Western government that has taken over. It has used existing ethnic and religious divisions in Ukraine to hive off the Crimean peninsula and turn a large swathe of territory in the east into a war zone.
For historical reasons many people living in the east of Ukraine identify with Russia; in Europe, where borders have changed often in the past century, this kind of cross-border allegiance is not unusual. Before now Hitler and Stalin, among others, exploited similar sources of tension. Putin has used pro-Russian Ukrainians––advised, trained and equipped by his own military intelligence services––together with a ‘free corps’ of Cossacks and other Russian mercenaries, some of them veterans of the fighting in Chechnya, to pursue his anti-Western agenda.
He may have good reason to fear the loss of a satellite state, but his actions only serve to underscore why most of Ukrainian citizens want a future in the EU.
Putin’s particular approach has been conditioned by a desire to localize the conflict as much as possible, thus avoiding a direct confrontation with member states of the European Union. Until this week he had been partially successful. Although both the United States and the EU imposed sanctions against Moscow following its invasion of the Crimea, there have been signs recently of a split in the trans-Atlantic response to Russia’s aggression. Washington expanded its sanctions regime after it determined that Moscow was supplying ever-more sophisticated weapons to the rebels, including surface-to-air missile launchers, but the EU did not follow suit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande (who have not been the most outspoken of world leaders condemning the attack on MH-17) are the chief architects of a ‘slowly-slowly’ approach to Putin. Their approach, along with Putin’s ‘localizing’ strategy, has crashed just as surely as the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines plane.
Local has become global. In an interconnected world, a conflict in the very centre of Europe in which the most sophisticated types of conventional weapons are deployed was never going to remain local for long. International travel is just one way in which humanity is knitted together; we cannot turn our backs on any festering conflict and hope it goes away. The complaint that the aircraft should not have been using air space above a conflict zone (as was done by many other commercial flights) completely misses the point. Whoever supplied and wantonly fired the missile, having failed to even identify the target, bears the whole responsibility.
Putin has been hoisted with his own petard: if he continues to stand aside from this tragedy he is condemned as irresponsible and ruthless; if he exercises the authority of his office to clear the disaster area for a proper recovery and investigation, he demonstrates the true extent of Russia’s involvement. Alternatively, if indeed he cannot influence the disparate militias that are roving over the disputed territory, it will become clear that he has engineered a crisis over which he has lost control.
Putin faces an unenviable choice, as far as his own prestige is concerned (and that, rather that the dignified recovery of the remains of 298 innocent people, seems to be the overriding consideration in Moscow). It is hard to imagine how this terrible situation can play out to his advantage. The best outcome, and the best memorial to the lost lives, would be an end to the fighting and a political settlement that respects the sovereignty of Ukraine and the rights of all its citizens.
Walter Hamilton reported from foreign bureaus for the ABC and AAP for 14 years.