War Comes to Ukraine

The Consequences of the Crash in Donetsk

The site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. (Maxim Zmeyev / Courtesy Reuters)

By Alexander J. Motyl in Foreign Affairs

Yesterday afternoon, by most accounts, pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. The attackers ostensibly thought that the Boeing 777 was a Ukrainian plane about to enter Russian airspace. Soon after the attack, Igor Girkin, the self-styled commander of the Donetsk People’s Army, bragged on his website that “We just shot down an AN-26 plane near Torez; it’s scattered somewhere around the Progress mine. We warned them not to fly in ‘our sky’.” Soon after, RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency, seconded Girkin’s claim.

After it became apparent that the plane was not Ukrainian, Girkin erased his post and Aleksandr Borodai, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, tried to put the blame for the attack, which killed 295, on Ukrainian authorities. Later in the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that it was “unquestionable that the state over whose territory this took place is responsible for this terrible tragedy.”

The atrocity comes three days after Russian militants shot down a Ukrainian transport plane flying over Krasnodon district in Luhansk province and one day after a missile — which Ukrainian authorities believe was fired by Russia — brought down a Ukrainian SU-25 jet over Donetsk province.

This week also saw a major escalation of Russian military involvement in Ukraine; in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 13, about 100 Russian armored personnel carriers and other vehicles crossed from Russia into Luhansk province in Ukraine. Unlike earlier Russian deployments into Crimea and eastern Ukraine, these carriers were openly adorned with Russian insignia and flags. The flow of Russian tanks and soldiers into the area has since continued, and Ukrainian authorities estimate that up to 400 additional “little green men” (a term coined during the Crimea invasion for Russian troops without insignia) have infiltrated into eastern Ukraine’s Donbas.

Until yesterday, that escalation had gone relatively unremarked in Western media. But now, no matter who fired the missile, things are set to change. The downing of a civilian plane may conceivably qualify as a war crime, inasmuch as it entailed the unwarranted militarily destruction of a civilian target. At any rate, it was certainly an atrocity and an act of terrorism. And if Girkin — an ethnic Russian who hails from Russia and who, by some accounts, is still an officer in the Russian military intelligence service, which would make him officially subordinate to Russia’s president — really was involved, Putin might arguably be politically responsible for the crime.

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Russian Revisionism

Putin’s Plan For Overturning the European Order

An armed man stands outside the cabinet of ministers building in Simferopol in Crimea, March 3, 2014. (Thomas Peter / Courtesy Reuters)

Russia’s willingness to violate Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty is the gravest challenge to the European order in over half a century. The conflict pits a vast nuclear power against a state equal in size to France, an autocratic regime against a revolutionary government. The Russian intervention in Ukraine raises questions about the security guarantees that the West made to Ukraine after the country gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, and it flies in the face of many Europeans’ belief that, in recent years, a continental war has become all but impossible. The end result may be the emergence of a third Russian empire or a failed Ukrainian state at the center of Europe.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine should not be understood as an opportunistic power grab. Rather, it is an attempt to politically, culturally, and militarily resist the West. Russia resorted to military force because it wanted to signal a game change, not because it had no other options. Indeed, it had plenty of other ways to put pressure on Kiev, including through the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, the Ukrainian city in which the force is based; playing with gas prices; demanding that Ukraine start paying off its government debt to Russia; and drumming up anti-Ukrainian sentiment among Ukraine’s sizable Russian population. Further, senior American figures had already noted that the Ukrainian crisis could not be solved without Russia, and European leaders had expressed their unhappiness about a new (and unfortunate) law that Ukraine’s transitional government passed soon after it was formed, which degraded the status of the Russian language. In other words, resorting to force was unnecessary.

It was also dangerous: Ukraine is a big country, and its public, still in a revolutionary mood, is primed to fight for a patriotic cause. Moscow’s intervention will provoke strong anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine and will perhaps bring what’s left of the country closer to the EU and NATO. Military intervention in Ukraine also risks unleashing a real humanitarian crisis within Russia. According to Russian sources, nearly 700,000 Ukrainians have fled to Russia over the last two months. Around 143,000 of them have asked for asylum. A war in Ukraine could triple these numbers. Finally, it is easy to foresee that Moscow’s use of force will increase Russia’s political isolation. It has already resulted in some economic and political sanctions, which could be a knockout punch to Russia’s stagnating economy. By some estimates, the direct costs to Russia of a war in Ukraine could reach over three percent of Russian GDP (over $60 billion).

Yet Putin decided to throw caution to the wind. Anger is one of his reasons for doing so. Putin was defeated twice in Ukraine: first during the 2004 Orange revolution, which brought to power a pro-Western coalition led by Yulia Tymoshenko, and second during the recent protests, which booted President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian politician, out of office. Moscow had bet on Yanukovych and had tried to hold him hostage to its own interests. For example, it pressed him to refuse to sign an Association Agreement with the EU (his failure to sign was what first sparked the protests in Ukraine) and loaned Ukraine nearly $15 billion, thus making the country dependent on Russia. But it was really Putin who became hostage to the increasingly unpopular Yanukovych and his hapless cronies. When Yanukovych lost power, Putin suddenly and unexpectedly lost his strategic partner. Putin’s escalation, at least in part, is an attempt to cover up the failures of his Ukraine policy.

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