The MH17 Disaster: Part of a Much Bigger Problem

July 23, 2014 Topic: SecurityForeign Policy Region: UkraineRussiaUnited States

The MH17 Disaster: Part of a Much Bigger Problem

How things could go from bad to worse in Ukraine.

The loss of a civilian jetliner, the tragedy of losing innocent victims, is heartrending. But decisions made in the heat of such emotions can be dangerous. Politicians indignant over the senseless loss of life easily lose sight of the distant tragedies that may lay embedded in the escalatory steps they feel compelled, in the flush of anger, to advise.

And yet the list of things thought of as crystal clear when they occurred, but that in retrospect appear differently, is a long one. From the Maine to the Lusitania, from Lyndon Johnson fishing in the Gulf of Tonkin to Colin Powell dissembling at the United Nations, we have learned that first indications are not always final. We also know that mistakes do happen , even in militaries of the highest professionalism. But such cautionary tales do not render these shocking events any less explosive in their implications.

The evidence is not all in, but a verdict has been reached, and one that seems perfectly plausible: MH17 was shot down by mistake by the Russian-supported insurgents. They had been shooting Ukrainian military planes out of the sky in the previous two weeks, so the odds are that they were just keeping at it and made a careless blunder. On the other hand, we are justified on general principles of precaution in not immediately leaping to the seemingly obvious conclusion. False flag attacks do happen. Ukrainian intelligence sources were very quick off the draw in releasing their edited transcripts showing insurgent culpability, and according to a report the Ukrainian military did have the suspected Buk antiaircraft missile systems in the area. We have seen a lot of accusations seemingly backed by evidence, but very little actual evidence. Questions remain .

Such instant verdicts, however, are par for the course in international crises; the initial impression, even if later questioned, has the force of nature. And the initial judgment here is that the insurgents are guilty and that Vladimir Putin is ultimately responsible. The search for means of punishment and escalation has thus been reinvigorated; John McCain, as always, is in the lead. Investigating the crash, McCain allows, “is vitally important, but . . . the highest priority right now . . . [is] supporting Ukraine in securing their country and imposing severe pressure on Russia.” Of course, McCain doesn’t put the blame entirely on Putin. The plane disaster is also Obama’s fault for running a “cowardly administration that failed to give the Ukrainians weapons with which to defend themselves.”

By way of further punitive measures, the main things on the table are beefing up the Ukrainian military with arms and U.S. military advisors, imposing further sanctions on Russia in the defense, energy and finance sectors, and strengthening NATO forces in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, including the establishment of permanent bases and the construction of missile-defense systems. Senator Bob Corker and twenty-six Republican co-sponsors introduced a draconian sanctions bill in the Senate containing these ideas and more. Even before the plane was shot down, the Washington Post had called for “crippling unilateral sanctions on Russia, especially through the banking system,” and argued “If the Ukrainian government can act without the permission of France and Germany, so can the United States.” The “tough” steps now recommended come on top of sanctions already imposed , which have, among other things , “banned the export to Russia of civilian technology with potential military applications, suspended cooperation with Russia on civilian nuclear energy projects, cut off NASA's contacts with its Russian counterpart, and denied Russian specialists access to the laboratories of the U.S. Department of Energy.”


The advocates of stern measures never bother to tote up the financial and political consequences, but these sanctions, existing and prospective, are very serious steps. In Washington’s strange world, it would be easier to extract from Congress sanctions that cost U.S. businesses $100 billion than to find the money for grants of $10 billion to rebuild Ukraine’s economy, but those untallied costs are real. Financial sanctions on Russia like those imposed on Iran would put Cold War II in full swing and severely damage Europe’s recovery, but would probably force a collision within NATO and the EU before they made Russia surrender under the pressure. Arming the Ukrainians, which Obama has thus far resisted, could easily inflame the violence.

None of these steps would promote a peaceful settlement. Nor do they do anything for the festering wound that is Ukraine’s economy. A Ukraine that severs its economic relationship with Russia condemns itself to penury. It needs both Russia and the West as trading and investing partners. The Ukrainians haven’t quite figured out that their expectations for a new Marshall Plan, to say nothing of the full membership in the EU promised by Petro Poroshenko, are not in the cards. (Poland received $154 billion in direct assistance from the EU; Ukraine today has even larger needs yet, as Mark Adomanis points out , “The amount currently on offer by the EU is precisely $0.”)