This is the end of the conflict in Ukraine as we know it.
I don’t usually include personal statements in my blog entries, but – besides expressing my deepest sympathy with the families of the victims of flight MH17 – I have to say how absolutely baffled I am by the fact that passenger aircrafts were even allowed to fly over a region in war. That is the first perplexing, bewildering, incomprehensible circumstance in this terrible tragedy.
News remain news as long as they keep happening to ‘other people’. As soon as ‘news’ might as well happen to you, they cease being news – they become reality. With the tragedy of MH17, the European public, so far preoccupied with more palpable problems, closer to home, and therefore largely uninterested in what was happening in Ukraine, has been drawn brutally into the conflict. It was bound to happen, sooner or later: most people expected that a gas crisis in the autumn would eventually be the turning point. Today’s tragedy, though, brought the war much closer, much more abruptly and brutally to the European people.
The Ukraine conflict is a war of disinformation. It has been a war of conflicting reports on casualties, front lines, transfers of weaponry, atrocities against civilians and responsibilities. The situation will be no different with the single most important turning point in the crisis so far. So let’s take a look at the facts first.
Approximately two weeks ago ITAR-TASS reported on separatists having seized BUK anti-aircraft weaponry, able to shot a plane flying at the altitude of MH17. This is a fact. Do we know whether separatists still had the weapons today? No. Ukrainian news sources claim that they did. Is it possible that they acquired such weaponry from Russia? Yes – in past weeks there was ample evidence suggesting that Russia has indeed been supporting rebel forces with arms. Can it be proven, in this case? Hardly.
Shortly before flight MH17 went missing, Igor Strelkov, a rebel commander, posted a message on his Vkontakte page claiming that rebels shot down an An-26 military plane. Later on, it was removed – along with a number of tweets published by the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic – and conflicting information published by pro-rebel news sources about the matter. Later tonight, Ukrainian intelligence published what they claim are intercepted phone conversations between rebels talking about having downed the plane. They were later removed. And then resubmitted again. Are such claims totally trustworthy? No. Are they believable? Yes. Are there in line with the official position of the president of Ukraine? Yes.
While at first some claimed that Strelkov’s aforementioned message was sham, later on, rebel forces claimed that they had, indeed, shot down a Ukrainian fighter plane, trailing behind the MH17. Russian television later reported that an Ukrainian fighter jet – or Ukrainian ground forces – had been targeting Vladimir Putin’s plane, returning from Brazil, and mistakenly downed the passenger jet. Does it make sense? It does not: aside from the factual discrepancies of the story, shooting down the Russian president would have immediately put Ukraine on the losing side of the war – no need to explain why. This is a conspiracy theory for the consumption of the Russian public. And not even a good one. Has the Ukrainian military used fighter jets against rebels, though? Yes. However, rebels have no air force. A Ukrainian fighter jet would have shot at ground targets, while using anti-aircraft missiles from the Ukrainian side would have made no sense.
While there is extremely poorly trained military personnel and extremely dangerous weaponry on both sides, on the basis of evidence and reports so far, it appears much more likely that pro-Russian rebels downed the plane. Were they aware that it was a passenger jet and not a military plane, before shooting at it? I am almost certain that they were not. Reports claim that there may indeed have been several military planes flying in the region.
This tragedy will most probably spell the end of separatism in Ukraine, in its present form, and through it, it may also spell the end of Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia. As it is widely believed that rebels downed the plane, European governments will face extreme pressure from their respective voters – and from the United States – to use every possible tool at their disposal to force Russia to cut off the rebels immediately and completely. These will include, in the very least, sanctions against specific sectors of the Russian economy – able to bring Russian industries to their knees – that the EU has avoided so far because the payoff between possible political gains and economic losses seemed to be unfavourable. This equation has just changed.
Vladimir Putin had already faced an increasingly inconvenient situation as, what Brian Whitmore called the ‘Ukraine hangover’ hit the Russian public – displeased nationalists who wanted more and middle-class Russians concerned for their standard of living – and the Russian elite. Meanwhile, numerous evidence suggested that the Russian government controlled the rebels less and less, and that things started to get out of hand. The downing of flight MH17 proved just this.
It is a vital interest of the Russian president to do absolutely everything it takes to minimise Russia’s suspected involvement in the downing of the plane. Hence the cooked-up story about the real target actually being the plane of the Russian president. It is also not a surprise that rebels have, reportedly, blocked access to the crash site and pledged to bring flight recorders to Moscow. The longer separatists block access to the remnants of the plane, the less likely that anyone, save for Russian intelligence will find out the truth. Obviously, rebels will, eventually, have to abandon the territory: to think that relatives and investigators will be denied to access the wreckage and the remains of passengers and the crew is inconceivable. If rebels are indeed behind the tragedy, they will, very quickly, try to destroy as much evidence as possible. But even so, there is not much ahead for the “people’s republics”.
From now on, supporting the rebels further is not an option for the Russian president. Withdrawing and giving up on Ukraine is not an option either.
Forget about disgruntled nationalists and a worried middle class. Vladimir Putin has just lost the war in Ukraine.