The catastrophic consequences of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 go well beyond the 298 needlessly lost souls and the suffering inflicted on their families and friends. The plane’s downing is an international incident of no less consequence than the Lockerbie bombing ordered by Muammar Qaddafi in 1988, which transformed someone regarded as an eccentric despot into a lethally dangerous international pariah. While Russian President Vladimir Putin—unlike Qaddafi—did not order the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane, this tragedy drives home the dangers to international security posed by his reckless adventurism and his use of proxies in what has been labeled a hybrid war.
Since the conflict in eastern Ukraine began, Russian propaganda has sought to portray it as a civil war, an internecine Ukrainian conflict—a formulation that was a comfortable dissimulation for many European democracies that wanted to avoid disrupting their economic relations with Russia.
With the downing of MH17, the fighting in eastern Ukraine has been globalized into a war that has claimed the lives of western Europeans, Asians, and North Americans. It has place under unprecedented international scrutiny Russia’s central role as the backbone of the fighting in Eastern Ukraine and has stripped the mask off Russian subterfuge and propaganda.
First, within minutes of the disappearance of Malaysian flight 17, rebel leader Igor Girkin (a Russian security service operative who goes by the nom de guerre “Strelkov,” or shooter) posted on his Russian social-media page that rebels had taken down a Ukrainian military transport plane in the vicinity of the tragedy. Ukraine’s security services have also released tapes of intercepted rebel communications in which they first celebrate the downing of an enemy plane and then realize that a passenger plane has been hit.
Second, there is the mounting evidence that it was a Russian-produced missile—the BUK—with the capacity to reach altitudes of over 25 kilometers (15 miles) that shot down flight 17. A report from June 29, by the Russian news service TASS, indicated that rebels were now in possession of the BUK missiles, but said they had been captured from Ukraine forces, a claim denied by Ukraine, which insists that all its missiles and launchers are accounted for and remain under their control.
Ukrainian officials have denied that such weapons were seized from their arsenal and typical Ukrainian policy is to destroy weapons before surrendering or retreating positions. More likely, the story was planted to allow for Kremlin deniability of direct military support to the rebel cause.
Third, there is the mounting evidence of a massive Russian transfer of heavy weaponry to rebel forces to stave off Ukraine’s forces, which in recent weeks have recaptured over half of rebel held territory. Today Ukrainian authorities control three-quarters of the regions in which the Russian proxy separatist movement has been operating. One area over which Ukraine’s forces do not have control is the rebel-held region over which the Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down.
Fearful of the potential international backlash against the perpetrators of the attack and their links to Russia, Putin’s crudely propagandistic media are in high gear. Some of them are pinning responsibility for the attack directly on Ukraine forces. Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, has declared that Ukraine is to blame because its civil aviation authorities permitted flights over a combat zone. Putin himself has, more vaguely, blamed Ukraine for creating the circumstances for the tragedy by failing to seek peace when he knows that, for ten days in late June and early July, Ukraine held firm to a cease fire that the rebels disregarded. He further knows that, under his instructions, Russia has recruited mercenaries, provided heavy weapons, and sent skilled military operatives and technicians to lead a proxy war in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Russian claims of Ukrainian complicity in the MH17 disaster strain credulity. Ukraine is the only side with combat aircraft and military transports engaged in the conflict in the Donbas region. It would be illogical for them to shoot down any planes over their territory as none thus far have been in the hands of hostiles. Moreover, Ukraine’s military liaise with their air-traffic controllers and have had real-time information concerning all planes over their airspace and knew the flight was civilian.
Just a few days ago, Putin was feeling comfortable. He was basking in glory as a respectable world leader. First, there were the shots of him sitting near German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the World Cup final—the putative host of the next championship in 2018. Then came his photo-ops with the leaders of some of the world’s fastest growing economies—China, Brazil, India, and South Africa.
Today this image of respectability is in a shambles, lying in ruin by the shattered remains of Malaysian Airways Flight 17.
The months of Russian arms, Russian fighters, and Russian financing for the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, are under the glare of massive international media scrutiny and the fingerprints of Putin are all over this tragedy.
But the crisis both poses acute dangers to Putin and places him at a political crossroads—and, paradoxically, offers him a way out. Along one path is a pariah status, increased international isolation additional sanctions and a new Cold War. Along another is a stand-down with a cutoff of support of the rebel forces and pressure on them to flee or agree to lay down their arms.
Which path Putin chooses will be clear in the coming days.
In recent weeks, there had been signs of growing concern among Kremlin moderates and the Russian business community that the proxy war in Ukraine was far too damaging to Russia’s economy and was developing into a potential threat to Russia’s longterm stability. This week, with new U.S. sanctions and the threat of Russian isolation emanating from Putin’s Lockerbie, the Russian stock market fell by over 8 percent.
Putin can seize on this tragedy to move toward rapid de-escalation in eastern Ukraine. He can urge the 15,000 insurgent fighters in Ukraine’s East—many of them Russians—to lay down their arms. And he can immediately stop the flow of tanks, missiles, and other weapons to the rebels.
Or he can become a Qaddafi-like pariah and plunge Russia into international isolation with his now transparently brazen support for Russian insurgents and Russian proxies who are seeking to create a permanent zone on instability in Ukraine.
It’s now his Lockerbie and his move.
Adrian Karatnycky is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.