The shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 in Eastern Ukraine on 17th June has placed the conflict which has engulfed that part of Ukraine into an entirely new context. It has transformed the event from a localized, regional rebellion into a crisis that brings Russia’s role into the open.
By Adam Swain
Via The Conversation
It remains to be seen precisely how and why the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crashed over the territory of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” in eastern Ukraine on Thursday. But whatever the outcome, almost 300 lives have been lost as part of a piece of political theatre which now looks more like a crushing tragedy.
The most recent reports indicate that it is plausible the civil airliner flying between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur was mistaken for a Ukrainian military transport plane and shot down by DNR (the Russian acronym) forces using a BUK vehicle-mounted medium range surface to air missile system. That was likely to have been captured from Ukrainian government forces earlier in the conflict or procured, no doubt circuitously, from the Russian military.
Several Ukrainian military aircraft have been shot down in recent weeks including two planes downed earlier this week. Equally, it seems unlikely that government forces would have fired such a missile as Ukrainian forces dominate the skies and the DNR does not currently possess air power. It is also difficult to imagine the Russian military would have any incentive to shoot down a civilian airliner. The Ukrainian government claims to have “intercepts” linking the DNR to the downing of the jet and it has been claimed that the DNR announced shooting down the plane on social media feeds before later deleting them.
In keeping with the framing of the government’s attempt to liberate DNR territory as an “Anti-Terrorism Operation”, popularly known as the ATO, the newly-elected billionaire Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, called the downing of the plane an act of terrorism. While the indiscriminate killing of civilians is indeed terrorism, the three-month old conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts is more accurately understood as the first proxy war in a new cold war between Russia and the West.
The war was initiated by the West’s support for the overthrow of a flawed, yet democratically elected, president Viktor Yanukovych who refused to submit to western powers who would not countenance trilateral negotiations between Russia, Ukraine and the EU to establish the country’s status. Yanukovych was succeeded by an interim president and government which signed a political association agreement with the EU and accepted financial aid from the US. That enabled them to stage a pre-term presidential election which resulted in the election of the pro-western oligarch Poroshenko who promptly signed an economic association agreement with the EU.
In spite of the western assistance, the violent overthrow of Yanukovych, who fled to Russia resulted in profound power vacuums in those regions controlled either by Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions or by his personal networks – the so-called “family”. The presence of the 30,000 strong Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea combined with a local elite happy to ally with Russia resulted in the region’s peaceful incorporation in to the Russian Federation after a referendum in March. There was an even greater power vacuum in Yanukovych’s home region of Donetsk Oblast where the “family” effectively controlled the region. Russia used the disappearance of the family, popular anti-Kiev sentiment and the weakness among the region’s political and commercial elites to initiate the so-called “Russian Spring”.
Power games by proxy
However, the failure to cultivate popular pro-Russian mass mobilisation and the reluctance of the Donetsk region’s elite to ally with Russia resulted in a weak de facto occupation of the region by increasingly well-armed rebels. While Russia sought a genuine ceasefire to separate Donetsk and the Luhansk oblasts from the rest of Ukraine, the West urged Poroshenko to fight to liberate the occupied parts of the two oblasts. As Ukrainian forces overwhelmed the rebels in government strongholds in the north of Donetsk province, the DNR’s demands for more direct support from Russia grew. The result is a war between Russia and the west through its proxies, the DNR and Ukrainian government respectively.
The West’s support for the overthrow of Yanukovych unbalanced Russia. It reconstituted Russia as an anti-western revanchist power prepared to ignore international law as in the annexation of Crimea. It also made Russia focus even more keenly on its national security not least by reducing dependence on Ukraine and other countries for procuring military technology and equipment. Russia has even begun to develop its own financial payments system to reduce its reliance on US financial and technology companies. It also even revived Russia’s multilateral diplomatic efforts to build non-western centers of power – such as the Eurasian Union and BRICS development bank – to challenge North American and European hegemony.
The only way to stop further unintended consequences of this proxy war in eastern Ukraine, like the tragic downing of MH17, is for the West and Russia to negotiate a new bargain in which they share influence in Ukraine and agree its status between their respective centers of power.
Adam Swain is an Associate Professor, School of Geography at University of Nottingham
Clearly, it is germane to explore how the separatists obtained this weaponry. While rumors initially abounded that they were taken from Ukrainian forces, this has now been denied by the Ukrainians who are saying that the BUK system which brought down the plane must be Russian military hardware, which is supposedly supported by numerous geo-located photos of separatists posing with their newly-acquired hardware. In a similar vein, the BUK is a highly sophisticated system which requires extensive training to operate. So, were the operators Russian fighters with extensive military experience, who, according to various sources, form the core of the separatist forces?
The separatists’ initial claim made on Facebook that they had downed what they thought was a Ukrainian military plane, at the time and place the Malaysian aircraft was shot down, was subsequently deleted together with any references to the BUK system. At the same time, inside Russia various theories prevailed, diverting the blame away from the separatists, including Putin’s assertion that the tragedy would never have happened had the Ukrainians not resumed military activities in Eastern Ukraine after the ceasefire. While perhaps surprising to international observers, this line of argumentation simply continues the pattern of the Russian government and media putting the blame squarely on the Ukrainians for any casualties resulting from the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
But in this three-month old conflict, the blowing up of the jet certainly seems to represent a new phase. Following a swift and largely bloodless annexation of Crimea in March 2014, attempts were made to repeat this scenario by focusing on South-Eastern Ukraine at large (referred to as Novorossiya in Russia, thereby emphasising the region’s historical links to Russia, even though the name has little meaning and resonance in Ukraine). After some unrest in the cities of Kharkiv and Odessa, involving a fire in which a number of pro-Russian demonstrators died in Odessa, the “Novorossiya project” has failed to engulf the eastern half of the country. However, rebellion has succeeded in igniting a smaller part of Ukraine – the Donbass region, consisting of two large cities, Donetsk and Luhansk.
In Donbass, Russia’s approach was characterized by lending implicit support to separatist forces, while depicting them as a bottom-up, local rebellion. This kind of “hybrid warfare” blurs the boundaries between state-controlled regular armed forces and the rogue local and mercenary forces. This strategy was viable owing to the porous border between the Donbass region and Russia (the demarcation of the Ukrainian-Russian border has long been opposed by Russia), easy transportation routes and ready volunteers within and from beyond Ukraine. However, it was noticeable that the top commanders of the various self-proclaimed republics were Russian citizens from Moscow – such as Alexander Borodai and Igor Strelkov – the last one with extensive military experience in various hotspots in post-communist Europe.
Under the radar
During my trip to Ukraine in June 2014, I queried the role of the Russian militants as opposed to local volunteers in a discussion with a Ukrainian expert from Donbass. The town of Snizhne – from which the expert came – had been taken over by the separatists three days earlier. She pointed out that nowhere in Donbass had there been an outburst of bottom-up support for separatism without so-called “little green men” arriving first and taking over the local administration building and subsequently recruiting the local population. These same “little green men” were seen in Crimea before its annexation.
Russian authorities vehemently deny any role in any of the conflicts and while the Russian media provides strong endorsement of the separatist cause, it has been particularly careful to avoid mentioning any Russian support. Rather, the conflict is depicted as an internal. It is happening within Ukraine with the separatists characterized as defenders of the local population against the onslaught of the Ukrainian military. At the same time, extensive evidence of killings, kidnapping and torture committed by the separatists, as evidenced, amongst others, by an Amnesty International report, has not been covered by the Russian media.
Nevertheless, this under-the-radar strategy started to unravel following the election of the new Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and his unexpected decisiveness in instigating military action against the separatists. After the initial lack of co-ordination and effectiveness of the Ukrainian forces, they found a new sense of purpose (after significant reorganization) by the end of June. This gradually placed separatist-controlled areas under increased pressure, culminating in the separatists (led by Igor Strelkov) being pushed out of their symbolic stronghold in Slovyansk in early July.
This noteworthy retreat of the separatists raised the stakes. After they regrouped in the region’s two largest cities, Luhansk and Donetsk, Russia started to back the separatists with heavier armor, with a higher flow of fighters and weaponry observed since May. Then on July 14 and 16 two Ukrainian military jets were shot down (one by a Russian military jet, according to Ukrainian military sources). This was followed by the re-appearance of the mysterious “little green men” who were largely taken to be Russian troops with their military insignia removed (as noticed by the local residents) and the alleged shelling of the Ukrainian armed forces from the Russian territory in support of the separatists on July 17. The downing of the Malaysian airliner took place later that same day.
What is Russia’s role?
Against this backdrop, the shooting down of the civilian aircraft draws attention to the aspect of the conflict which has been hidden by the “hybrid warfare” and which now focuses international attention on the perpetrators, their motives, access to weaponry and support. This has brought unwelcome international scrutiny to the role of Russia in the conflict. Putin’s ambivalent reaction, initially laying the blame at Ukraine’s door but making no comment about Russia’s support for separatist rebels, testifies to the sensitive nature of this very topic. Yet, this is hardly surprising given the growing evidence that the rebel forces used surface-to-air missiles indiscriminately against a civilian aircraft.
If the international scrutiny and investigation establishes a direct link to Russia, the unintended consequences of supporting separatism via “hybrid warfare” in Eastern Ukraine will have immense ramifications for Russia’s international standing in general and relations with the West in particular.
The shooting down certainly changes the dynamics within the EU. Despite the reluctance of some member states, such as Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and Cyprus as well as Germany, their position will be significantly weakened vis-à-vis the member states – such as Poland, Sweden, Lithuania and the UK – which championed stronger sanctions against Russia on the basis of evidence which had accumulated even prior to the airplane’s crash. But this does not imply a unified position, judging by the still cautious reaction from Germany. At the same time, the continuous reluctance to impose stronger sanctions on Russia amongst more pro-Russian states in the EU will create a deeper rift within the EU and between the US and EU.
Kataryna Wolczuk is associated with Reader in Politics and International Studies, Center for Russian and East European Studies at University of Birmingham
This article first appeared in The Conversation. Click here to go to the original.