Consider what we know so far.
First, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by a missile team operating in separatist-controlled territory proximate to Ukraine’s Russian border. Rebels in this area have a recent record of engaging aircraft.
Second, Ukraine’s government has limited military presence where MH 17 was lost.
Third, multiple sources (admittedly of varying reliability)have linked the attack to pro-Russian rebels.
Fourth, it takes more than a thug with a grudge to knock down a plane flying 33,000 feet above the Earth.
As I’ve explained before, any antiaircraft engagement, let alone one at such altitude, takes “the collection and application of intelligence, the patience to hold fire until the critical moment, and the use of Russian surface-to-air” capabilities.
The Donetsk rebels are agents of Russian policy. If they are responsible for downing Flight MH 17, Russia will bear significant culpability.
Over the past few months, I’ve documented Russia’s calculating military strategy in Ukraine. Alternating among direct military intervention, economic blackmail, and covert action, President Putin has manipulated Ukraine’s chaos to his own advantage. Occasionally offering fig leafs, he’s kept the West on the back foot. His success has been striking. In fact, at West Point just a month ago, President Obama claimed a quiet victory for American policy in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, for weeks now, a river of Russian weapons and personnel has flooded into eastern Ukraine. This supply train is why, along with the EU, the White House imposed new sanctions on Russia earlier this week.
Those sanctions are helpful but insufficient. Russian intelligence retains its institutional legacy from the KGB, and it’s operating in Ukraine as you’d expect. As the New York Times noted last week, epitomizing this tactic is Igor Girkin, who goes by the nom de guerre “Strelkov.” Leading a militia in Donetsk Oblast, with his Stalin-esque moustache and brutal ferocity, Girkin encapsulates Russia’s commitment to Putin’s 21st century iron curtain.
While Putin pretends that Girkin and co. are independent actors beyond the Kremlin’s authority, the opposite is in fact true. A career Russian intelligence officer until last year, Girkin is the archetypal Russian contract agent (a former intelligence officer hired on an unofficial basis). Contract agents afford the Russian government operational assets in Ukraine to direct while retaining a pretense of deniability (for incidents like the MH17 tragedy). This strategy is Russian intelligence 101: arrogant, brutal and literally irradiated by violence.
Moreover, the rebels’ tactics suggests the Russians’ strategy. At times, they’ve been highly aggressive — they downed a Ukrainian military transport plane, killing all 49 aboard, last month — and at times they’ve been more subdued. This double-edged trickery has fostered the West’s belief that a softly-softly approach can win a compromise with Russia. It’s a delusion with high costs.
And many analysts claim that Ukraine’s submission to the Russian orbit is ultimately inevitable. They’re wrong — there is much more we can do. We must realign our fundamental understanding of Russian power and ambition in Europe.
We must realize that what Putin seeks is not simply a sphere of influence, but a sphere of domination. Whatever Western multilateralists might believe, from Syria to Ukraine, Putin embraces raw power to pursue his objectives. With formative years participating in the domination of East Germany, he’s a natural continuation of Soviet authoritarianism. He’s capable of anything.
The Cold War has ended, but we must resist the warm blanket of self-deception. If MH 17 was downed by separatist rebels, a serious response, including full-spectrum sanctions on the Russian economy and provision of new military support to the Ukrainian Army, must follow. The “reset” has a tombstone, and its name is MH 17.