Kremlin must be forced to end the conflict with Ukraine.
The first hours following the downing of MH17 have focused on who was responsible for this horrific act of terrorism. But the real question has only barely been addressed. Not so much who shot down the plane — assigning blame, following the arrival of professional on-scene investigators, should not be that difficult.
Rather the central issue will quickly become what to do about it once that's been determined — who to punish and how? Does vengeance or retribution descend on someone whose technical competence extends barely past repairing a stalled farm tractor or should we focus on those who put these weapons of extraordinary sophistication and apocalyptic force in their hands or ultimately, those who created the conditions of war in the first place?
President Putin appears already to have conceded culpability on some of these grounds. He's failed to deny that this missile was made in Russia, likely supplied to irredentist forces with little competence or sophistication. Instead, he's jumped immediately to the final assignment of blame. The culprits, he's said with a thoroughly straight, bold face, are those who created the conditions of war and on whose territory the horrific act took place. In short, the government of Ukraine.
This attempt at obfuscation has never worked in the past and is unlikely to work very effectively now. It never worked when it came to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, at least when Ronald Reagan was president. On April 5, 1986, a terrorist bomb, planted by a Libyan intelligence agent, ripped through a West Berlin nightclub frequented by American servicemen stationed in Germany. Blame was immediately laid at Qaddafi's door. Nine days later, as Reagan put it in an address to the American people, "air and naval forces of the United States launched a series of strikes against the headquarters, terrorist facilities, and military assets that support Muammar Qadhafi's subversive activities."
The problem is, the case of MH17 hardly involves a tin-horn dictator running a remote north African nation. This is the absolute leader of the world's fifth largest economy, the world's largest oil and gas exporter, the largest nation on earth in area. This is Russia, a nation that straddles two continents and supplies resources vital to the prosperity, indeed the very survival, of a host of the world's most advanced nations in Western Europe.
Indeed, the last time Russia shot down a civilian passenger plane — a Korean Airlines 747 that had strayed off course into Soviet airspace on September 1, 1983 — there was little but bluster from the West. Equally, five years later, when an IranAir Airbus took off from an airport on the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war, an American battle cruiser, the USS Vincennes mistook the plane for a military jet and fired two missiles, downing the plane and killing everyone on board. The United States eventually paid $61.8 million in damages to passengers' families, but never apologized.
Clearly there seems little likelihood of an apology in these early hours after the attack on MH17. But would an apology suffice? Tightened sanctions might work, but it took years for all but total economic isolation on Iran to begin to have any substantial impact on the Iranian people. And the Russian people have shouldered untold hardships in the interest of preserving their right to do as they wish in their own back yard. In the end, sanctions, especially against a nation with the tools to retaliate against those who would enforce them.
For the moment, at least, Putin's approval rating has leaped to a six-year high, a Gallup survey released Friday showing 83% positive in the wake of the Sochi Olympics and the seizure of Crimea. This is the kind of backing Putin is playing with at home. Turning those kinds of numbers around won't be easy. But eventually, the Russian people will come to realize that they risk turning into global pariahs.
To move more quickly in that direction, the weight of the world needs to come down on Russia and President Putin. If the Kremlin can begin to understand the damage their intransigence has done to their standing in the world as a pariah among nations, perhaps they can be induced to bring to an end to the conflict in Ukraine. If these eastern Ukrainian stooges of the Russian leadership can be induced to stand down, perhaps the outcome will have saved more lives even than were lost in this single horrific action.
David A. Andelman, editor-in-chief of World Policy Journal, is a member of the Board of Contributors of USA TODAY and author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.
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