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MH17 – Who Did It? What Next?

“…and once the TAR (Target Acquisition Radar) has lock-on, this light will go green. Then just push this button here, and the rest’s automatic. Good luck!  Oh, and make sure nobody’s standing behind the missile when you launch.”

Maybe the crew who launched the missile that brought down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on Thursday afternoon were trained professionals, but it seems unlikely. That crew (or somebody else) was good enough to down three Ukrainian Air Force planes over the rebel-held zone in the past week, but they weren’t good enough to tell the difference between a military aircraft and a civilian airliner.

The Ukrainian planes were smallish aircraft flying low in a combat zone; the huge Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was flying straight and steady at 10,000 metres (33,000 feet). A fully trained operator would know the difference in an instant. Somebody who had just had a crash course in firing Buk missiles (two tracked vehicles and a lot of electronics) might not. So 298 people died.

There are two questions to answer here. One is: who did it? The Ukrainian government, the pro-Russian rebels and the Russian Federation have all denied responsibility. The other is: what happens if, despite their denials, the rebels and/or the Russians themselves are to blame? Is this horrible event a “game-changer”?

Who did it is actually pretty obvious. At least one Buk launch team was spotted by an Associated Press reporter in the rebel-held zone on Wednesday, and there may have been more. The Russians have been trying to deny the air-space over the combat zone to the Ukrainians so that their army has to do all its fighting without air support and suffers increased casualties. Six Ukrainian planes have been shot down in the past six weeks.

The Ukrainian government says it has no surface-to-air missiles in the area, and it is probably telling the truth. With one possible exception, there have been no reports of Russian planes overflying the region, so anti-air defences were not needed.

The really damning evidence, however, is on the social media sites. First there is a post on a top rebel commander’s site, just at the time MH17 went down, claiming to have downed a Ukrainian transport plane. Within hours that post was deleted. Then the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) posted intercepted telephone conversations between rebel commanders on YouTube.

“Demon”, commanding the rebel troops who are the first to the crash site, reports: “Cossacks from the Chernunkhino checkpoint shot down the plane….They found the first body. It’s a civilian.” “Were there many people?” asks his superior, nicknamed “Greek”. “A fuckload,” replies Demon. “The debris rained right into the yards.”

“Any weapons there?” asks Greek. “None at all. Civilian things. Medical stuff, towels, toilet paper,” says Demon. “Any documents?” asks Greek. And Demon, finally realising what must have happened, replies: “Yes. From an Indonesian student. From Thompson University.” And he curses again.

It’s pronbably not Thompson University, which is an entirely online institution in the United States. It’s almost certainly Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, which has a student exchange agreement with the International Islamic Education Council (IIEC) in Indonesia.

And there’s no way, without access to the crash site and with only a few hours to do the job, that the Ukrainian intelligence service could have come up with that kind of detail to put into a fake recording. It’s genuine. The rebels did it.

Russia didn’t want the Cossacks at Chernunkhino to shoot down a civilian airliner, but it has been giving the rebels heavy weapons while strenuously denying it. It has been caught red-handed, and hundreds have died. This is indeed a game-changer – but in which direction?

One option would be for Moscow to admit it, apologise whole-heartedly, and abandon its clients in eastern Ukraine. That is unlikely to happen. As President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, “This tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in that country, or in any case, if hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine. And certainly, the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy.”

In other words, yeah, we gave the rebels the weapons, and they used them to shoot down the airliner, but the whole thing wouldn’t have happened if the Ukrainian government had just given in to the rebels. So it’s really Kiev’s fault, not ours.

The signs are clear: Russia is going to brazen it out, and go on supplying the separatist rebels with weapons. The Western Europeans have been trying to look the other way (although the United States did impose some extra sanctions this week), but they can’t look away after this. Western sanctions against Russia are going to go up quickly and steeply now. It’s already ugly, and it’s going to get even uglier.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“There are…game-changer”; and “The Ukrainian…needed”)

A Federal Ukraine?

2 April 2014

A Federal Ukraine?

Two things were clear after US Secretary of State John Kerry’s four hours of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris last Sunday. One was that the United States accepts that nothing can be done about Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Kerry continues to describe Russia’s action as “illegal and illegitimate”, but Crimea was not even mentioned in the communique released to the public.

The other is that the transformation of Ukraine into a neutral, federal state is now firmly on the table. Kerry repeatedly voiced the mantra that there must be “no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine,” but he also agreed with Lavrov that the subjects that need to be discussed include rights for national minorities, language rights, the disarmament of irregular forces and a constitutional reform that would make Ukraine a federal state.

By “rights for national minorities” and “language rights” he meant a special political status for Ukraine’s 17 percent ethnic Russian minority and maybe even for the much larger number of Ukrainians – probably 40-45 percent – who speak Russian on a daily basis. Moscow is asserting its right to intervene in Ukraine’s internal affairs to “protect” these minorities, and Kerry is at least willing to talk about it.

By “disarmament of irregular forces” Lavrov had meant the armed right-wing groups that played a small part in the revolution and still make occasional appearances on Independence Square and elsewhere in Kiev. These groups are Moscow’s pretext for claiming that there has been a “fascist coup” in Kiev, from which it says that it has a duty to protect Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

Kerry may also have had in mind the armed pro-Moscow militias that occasionally appear in eastern Ukrainian cities, but he didn’t say so. Nor did he mention the fact that the Kiev government is already moving to disarm, break up and arrest the right-wing groups in western Ukrainian cities.

By talking about “federalising” Ukraine, Kerry was implicitly accepting that the Russian demand for a radical decentralisation of the country (which could give pro-Russian governments in some eastern Ukrainian provinces a veto on decisions in Kiev) is a legitimate topic for negotiation.

It’s no wonder that a satisfied Sergei Lavrov called the talks “very very constructive”, or that the Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesperson said Russia was demanding “Ukraine’s full capitulation, its split and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood.” And although Kerry promises “no decisions without Ukraine,” Kiev might not be able to reject American pressure to accept these concessions in its current gravely weakened state.

If all this makes John Kerry sound like a latter-day Neville Chamberlain appeasing Moscow, well, maybe he is. But that’s not clear yet.

Maybe the United States is getting ready to sell Ukraine down the river, or maybe Kerry is just giving sweet reason a try before the gloves come off. Likewise, maybe the Russians are really planning to turn Ukraine into a satellite – or maybe they just want to make it formally neutral. And how awful would that be?

There is nothing wrong with trying to stop this thing from turning into a new Cold War. Since NATO has no intention of offering Ukraine membership, formal neutrality could be a sensible way out of the current crisis so long as it does not preclude closer trade and travel ties with the European Union. But the Russians are also pushing hard for a “federalised” Ukraine.

“Given the proportion of native Russians in Ukraine,” said Lavrov, “we propose this and we are sure there is no other way.” That could be a deal-killer, especially since Moscow is starting to insist that the constitutional changes and a referendum on them be completed BEFORE the national election in Ukraine that is currently scheduled for 25 May.

These changes would be decided not by the Ukrainian government, but by a “nationwide dialogue” in which all regions would have an equal voice – including the eastern regions where there are many Russians, and 40,000 Russian troops poised just across the border. And, said Lavrov, the regions should have more power over, among other things, foreign trade, cultural ties abroad, and relations with neighbouring states, including Russia.

It is a programme, in other words, for the effective dismantling of the Ukrainian state, and it’s hard to see how even John Kerry and President Barack Obama can support that. Meanwhile, the level of panic is rising in the eastern European members of NATO, and especially in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which also have Russian minorities and border directly on the Russian Federation.

Vladimir Putin, fresh from his Crimean victory, is seriously overplaying his hand. Poland and the three Baltic states are now pushing for permanent NATO military bases on their territory, something the alliance has avoided since they joined in order not to antagonise Moscow. A confidential NATO paper leaked to Der Spiegel even talks about boosting military cooperation with Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan, all former Soviet republics.

And Moscow is now accusing Ukrainians of plotting terrorist attacks on Russian territory.  The odds on a new Cold War have gone up quite a lot in the past week.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“By disarmament…cities”)