Why the downing of MH17 is the beginning of the end for Ukraine’s separatists and a nightmare for Vladimir Putin.
- By Mark GaleottiMark Galeotti is a professor of global affairs at New York University's Center for Global Affairs and a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
There is little room for doubt that a missile fired by separatist rebels brought down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, killing 298 innocent people. It seems that the rebels didn’t realize they were targeting a civilian airliner. Indeed, intercepted telephone conversations between rebel commanders reflect their surprise and dismay: They presumably had thought it was a Ukrainian government military aircraft (that is certainly what rebel "minister of defense" Igor Strelkov claimed). But it is hardly relevant whether the downing of MH17 was a deliberate atrocity or a murderous mistake. Regardless, this disaster poses the greatest challenge yet for the Kremlin in its months-long covert war in Ukraine, one likely to bring the war to a close soon — if not without more bloodshed.
While there are undoubtedly grounds for resentment in eastern Ukraine — and while most of the rebel fighters are locals — the rebellion is, for all intents and purposes, a Russian creation. Since the insurgency began, Russia has armed, encouraged, facilitated, and protected the rebels while maintaining an official air of detachment. Strelkov is a known Russian intelligence officer; weapons and volunteers have been moved across the border into Ukraine on a constant basis; and Moscow has threatened retaliation if the Ukrainian government takes tough measures against a rebellion within its own borders. Despite all that, the Kremlin claims that Ukraine’s woes are simply an internal matter. Moscow cannot and will not continue to be able to pretend not to be involved, in the wake of MH17’s deadly descent.
Of late, the Kremlin had been showing signs of impatience and uncertainty when it came to eastern Ukraine. Separatist leaders, including Strelkov, have been grumbling about a lack of support from Moscow. Kremlin mouthpieces duly smeared them back. Eduard Bagirov, one of Putin’s main political managers, went further and publicly warned that Strelkov would be "squashed like a flea" if he didn’t come to heel.
However, compelling evidence emerged at the same time that the Russians were upping the ante in Ukraine. After the fall of Slavyansk, until then the epicenter of the rebel military, Russian forces apparently launched short-range rocket strikes on Ukrainian positions, and the U.S. government stated that the rebels had started to receive more heavy equipment from across the border, including artillery and armored vehicles.
This may well have included the Buk surface-to-air (SAM) missile system that apparently brought down MH17. Although the rebels subsequently claimed not to have any such systems, they incautiously had tweeted a picture of at least one in their arsenal at the end of June. The Buk may have been stolen from Ukrainian government stocks, as they and Moscow claim. Or it may have come directly from Russia. It makes little difference. The fact is that without Russian protection (and perhaps technical assistance), the rebels would not have been in a position to launch the fateful missile.
And that one missile has redefined this six-month-old war.
So long as the conflict was Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians (even with Russian support), it would only generate "grave concern" in Europe and an expanding but manageable sanctions regime from the West. This was irksome for the Kremlin, to be sure, but nothing that it could not bear, especially given the unlikely conviction among many within President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle that the West lacked the stamina and resolve to maintain its pressure long term. But the shooting down of MH17 provides both a powerful symbol of the wider risks of allowing this conflict to continue as well as ample ammunition for hawks eager to see a tougher Western line.
The Kremlin has a time-honored playbook for dealing with inconvenient truths and Putin quickly turned to it when MH17 came down. At first, there was simple denial (for the first few hours, the Russian media simply reported a mysterious crash, with no mention of a missile), while efforts were made to cover tracks (those social media posts by the rebels about having Buk SAMs and even having shot down a plane were hurriedly deleted). Then the Russians began introducing hints of conspiracy, such as the flimsy claim that two Ukrainian fighters had been shadowing MH17. That gave way to outright role-reversal, not least the bizarre claim that the Ukrainians shot it down, thinking it was Putin’s personal jet.
In his first statement on the tragedy, Putin blamed Kiev, saying, "The state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this terrible tragedy." His reasoning, apparently, is that the Ukrainian government is at fault for resisting an armed, foreign-backed rebellion within its own borders. "This tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in this land, if the fighting had not renewed in the southeast of Ukraine," Putin said.
To a large extent this was the Russian propaganda machine on autopilot. Although the Crimean and Ukrainian operations have shown how effective even seemingly crude information warfare can be in distracting, bamboozling, and blunting Western concern, it is hard to see how Moscow can spin this one away.
The initial evidence indicates that MH17 was shot down on the initiative of one particular Cossack unit. For all of Strelkov’s efforts to assert tight central control over the rebels, they remain a loose and often undisciplined collection of forces ranging from local thugs to deserters from the government security apparatus to Russian volunteers. It is unlikely that Strelkov and what passes as the rebel government would be able to arrest and discipline those who fired the missile, even if they were willing to. Indeed, according to the telephone intercepts, the Cossack commander’s own response was uncompromisingly callous: If they flew over a rebel-held area, "That means they were carrying spies. They shouldn’t be f–ing flying. There is a war going on."
Absent some decisive and conciliatory moves from the rebel leadership in Donetsk, political pressure will shift to Moscow as the political context of the war shifts in two crucial ways. Kiev’s determination to crush the insurrection will be redoubled and this time will receive much more evident encouragement from the West. It will now be hard even for the most Kremlin-friendly figures in Europe to advocate concessions to the rebels and thus, by extension, Moscow. Already, government forces have been receiving limited nonlethal support, above all from the United States. But after seeing what the rebels are capable of, there is now a chance that Western countries will offer Kiev weapons, trainers, and even special forces to bring an end to the conflict. For Putin, the only thing more dangerous than backing away from a conflict in Ukraine would be losing one.
The pressure will grow to further expand sanctions to punish Russia for continuing to incite the insurrection. This week, the United States extended its sanctions on Russia. The European Union, which on the whole has been more cautious, is now likely to toughen its line as well. President Barack Obama’s warning in his statement today that "time and again, Russia has refused to take the concrete steps necessary to de-escalate the situation" was a clear statement of where he believes the blame lies. It also leaves the door open for further measures if Moscow does not quickly change its position.
Then what does Putin do? What has become clear is how limited the Kremlin’s direct control is over many of the rebels. Even Strelkov — a retired Russian intelligence officer who should still be under Moscow’s thumb — is showing signs of recalcitrant independence. Besides, even if Strelkov were to follow Kremlin orders, there is no guarantee he could force a toxic and unruly rebel coalition to accept peace, especially as it is unlikely that Kiev will now offer amnesties, something President Petro Poroshenko had floated before as a way to bring an end to the stalemate.
Putin could double down and try to help the rebels win quickly, before sluggish Western democracies can act to bolster Kiev. But turning the tide would require something much more dramatic than providing covert men and materiel, such as an air campaign or even an invasion by Russian troops. It is hard to see even today’s more belligerent Putin being willing to pay the political and economic price for this. Russians rejoiced at their near-bloodless reunion with Crimea, but a bloody war in eastern Ukraine would be very different. Polls show that 73 percent of Russians oppose intervention.
Putin will almost certainly have to back away from the insurgency. And mere rhetoric will not be enough. He will actually need to take concrete steps to close the borders and stop the supply of weapons if he is to convince the West that he is serious about distancing himself from the men who brought down MH17. In these circumstances, re-energized government forces will probably be able to win the war militarily, and sooner than would otherwise be the case.
If the war ends sooner, however, it may also be bloodier. The rebels will have their backs to the wall, especially because most of them will probably have no option to retreat into Russia or receive asylum. Kiev may also feel more able to resort to the kind of artillery and airstrikes that won the battle for Slavyansk, regardless of the inevitable civilian casualties, when they move against the remaining strongholds of Lugansk and Donetsk.
Either way, it doesn’t look good for Moscow. Putin has increasingly framed himself as the guardian of Russians around the world and the master of post-Soviet Eurasia. No matter how the state-controlled media spin it, a reversal in eastern Ukraine will undermine him both at home and in Russia’s neighbors. The tragedy of Flight MH17 has reshaped the political context of the Ukrainian conflict. It also represents an unexpected and unwelcome challenge to Putin himself.