Sunday, 20 July 2014

Oh, Russia.

"We touched nothing" - Donetsk press conference. Photo: RT
How long did we in the West really think it would be before the Ukraine crisis actually affected our own countries and we had to take our heads out of the sand? 

That moment definitively came last Thursday, with the crash of Malaysian Airlines’ flight MH17, apparently shot down by pro-Russian forces. As the Atlantic's David Frum put it, in a magisterial piece:
"Through the past eight months of escalating Russian violence against Ukraine, too many European governments have treated the Ukraine issue as remote and marginal: regrettable, yes, but not a threat to the peace of the continent. It was more important, they felt, to sustain a normal relationship with Russia. That illusion died yesterday along with the murdered passengers of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17."
Whether this was a deliberate, cynical ploy or mere ineptitude, it seems unlikely that such an attack could have been directly sanctioned by Moscow.That said, the blame for initiating and then inflaming the current crisis in Ukraine, to the point where three hundred civilians who had nothing to do with the conflict are needlessly killed, lies squarely at the door of one man: Vladimir Putin. 

And it is not just the fact of the tragedy itself; what makes it somehow incalculably worse is the way the aftermath is being dealt with. 

Putin is not only attempting his usual trick of propaganda war, pretending it was the Ukrainian army and not the pro-Russians. It is what Neil Kinnock might have called the "grotesque spectacle" of access to the crash site by international inspectors being openly hindered. And that is for the obvious reason that the finding of too much evidence, including the black box, by a neutral party (i.e. not by the pro-Russians, who claim risibly "we touched nothing") would give the lie to Moscow's transparent untruths.

As my Humanitarian Intervention Centre colleague, Julie, puts it:
It is for this reason that at this point it seems highly unlikely that the international community will ever know the contents of the flight recorder.

Neither am I hopeful that, even now, faced with the results of what we might call its "ostrich strategy", the West will finally be moved to take action over Ukraine. The talk this morning is of giving Putin "one last chance" - as if somehow all the other last chances had worked so well - and it seems to me increasingly clear that the only way Putin's rampage will be stopped will be through a change of US president.

Oh, Russia.

UPDATE 21JUL: I spoke a little too soon: the Donetsk People's Republic has agreed to hand over the flight recorder to Malaysia. However, we can not yet prove that: 
(a) it has not been tampered with, and 
(b) Malaysia, which is not an entirely free and democratic state in the first place, will not be bullied or bought off by Russia in the meantime.

Forgive my cynicism but Putin has a history of deliberately doing unexpected things in order to confuse his critics and facilitate plausible deniability; this may well be just another. Even in the happy event that neither of these cases come to pass, the black box may not, of course, prove who downed the plane anyway. Let's see.

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