The Obama administration and western European governments are in a real pickle over what’s going on in Ukraine, and it’s not entirely their fault.
As you know, a civilian Malaysia Airlines jetliner was shot down yesterday over Russian-controlled eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers on board.
Today, the US government is saying that the plane was in fact shot down, likely by a Russian missile under the control of rebels that were created, funded and trained by the Russians. What’s more, it’s increasingly looking like the Russians themselves taught the rebels how to use the anti-aircraft missiles that the Russians provided them.
What does this mean for the US and Europe?
As you know, Russia recently annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and now has been fomenting civil war in eastern Ukraine, possibly as a pretext for a renewed Russian invasion that would then annex more of Ukraine’s territory.
Until now, the US and western Europe have been loathe to get more involved in the Ukraine crisis. Kyiv is not Berlin, or even Tallinn (the capital of Estonia, a NATO member that we have no choice but to defend military). Ukraine was not considered vital to the national interests of either the United States or Europe, so no one was willing to risk going to war — or even cold war — over it, regardless of the ethical and humanitarian implications of letting Ukraine be reabsorbed into a neo-Soviet orbit, of sorts.
The thing is, as a friend explained it to me, western Europe thinks it’s the 19-teens, while eastern Europe thinks it’s the 1930s. What does that mean? It means western Europe is trying to avoid letting small skirmishes turn into World War I, while eastern Europe knows what happens when you appease despots (whether they have a German or Russian accent).
Fast forward to this week, when the Russians (apparently) decided it was no longer enough to kill Ukrainians, they started killing people the Europeans and Americans actually care about — their own citizens.
At this point, US intelligence thinks the Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine shot down the Malaysian airliner, and they suspect it was with a Russian (Soviet) “Buk” missile. And the Pentagon said today that it was basically inconceivable that the rebels could have learned to operate the missiles without Russian help. There’s also a serious question as to where the Russian rebels got their Russian weapons from (take a guess).
But it’s worse than that. CNN was saying yesterday that while it would have been obvious to the Russians that this was a civilian airliner, it would have been next to impossible for the Russian rebels in Ukraine to know the difference between a Ukrainian military plane and a civilian airliner. The Russians knew they couldn’t tell the difference, the Russians knew they were providing weapons and training to people who were planning on shooting down planes in an area that was a major corridor for international civilian air traffic. And the Russians went ahead and trained them to shoot down the planes anyway (if, everything we now suspect ends up being true).
That’s not an accident. And it’s not simple negligence. It borders on premeditated murder.
You train someone to shoot down planes, in a zone full of civilian airliners, knowing full well that the people you’re training have no way of knowing which planes are civilian and which are military. You know they’re going to be killing innocent people, and you simply don’t care (or perhaps even want them to). That’s not a “mistake.”
And that puts both President Obama and western Europe in an awful pickle. It’s one thing to ignore a regional power that’s nasty as hell, and insists on brutalizing its own former satellites, but no one you “really” care about (i.e., a NATO ally). It’s quite another thing entirely when the despot starts brutally murdering your own citizens, including the 80 children who were on board that flight. (And then, they send their thugs to close off the crime scene and shoot at the international investigators, as the rebels have done, in an apparent effort to steal the evidence of the crime.) Then what do you?
At the very least, it’s no longer business as usual. It’s no longer simply a matter of slowly ratcheting up sanctions. (How many western children does Putin have to shoot out of the sky before we doubly or triple-y ramp up sanctions — is there a sliding scale for this kind of thing?)
But, it’s even more complicated than that. While Ronald Reagan was happy to go ballistic on the Soviets after they shot down that Korean Airlines Flight 007, killing 269 civilians (including an American congressman), and then denying it until the US proved it in the United Nations within some incredibly damning recordings. But what do you do when you’re not Ronald Reagan, when you don’t think it’s in your national interest to declare cold war on Russia and Putin over Ukraine, but Putin doesn’t get the message and then shoots some of your citizens out of the sky in cold blood?
This wasn’t an accident. It was Russia’s new foreign policy. A foreign policy in which western civilian casualties are not just acceptable collateral damage, but perhaps, troublingly, they’re even part of the plan.
There’s been a lingering concern as to whether the new Russia, and the new Putin, were trying to truly reconstitute the Soviet Union in all of its deadly glory. The hope was that Putin’s Russia could be contained, and that the Russian leader would restrain himself, and kill only his neighbors. But as often happens with killers, an appetite for murder and lawlessness knows few boundaries.
If today’s suspicions become tomorrow’s truths, then Russia has crossed a line that demands a much sterner response than the one it’s gotten to date — whether we like it or not.
Here’s Reagan’s speech on the KAL shootdown. Whatever else you say about the man, he sure knew how to kick the Russians.