Malaysian jetliner downed over eastern Ukraine: What next?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Up here at the Borderlands Lodge, we've been closely monitoring the big news surrounding the downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine. People are still trying to figure out the facts, of course, but at this point it looks like separatists in eastern Ukraine likely brought it down. 

Flight path of the doomed jetliner

If so, it won't be the first plane downed in the region, as the rebels had already shot more than ten planes out of the skies over eastern Ukraine in the month that preceded the Malaysian jet's destruction. 

Marker indicating location of body in cornfield

International reaction, and especially in the United States, has been fierce. Obama has called the event "an outrage of unspeakable proportions," and has underscored Russia's connection with the separatists. According to the Washington Post
In a White House news conference a day after the Boeing 777 crashed en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Obama stopped short of saying who fired the missile or directly blaming Russia for the deaths, which he called “an outrage of unspeakable proportions.” 

But he said the separatists “have received a steady flow of support from Russia,” including heavy arms, training and antiaircraft weapons. Pointing to rebel claims to have shot down several Ukrainian aircraft in recent weeks, including a Ukrainian fighter jet, Obama said it was “not possible for these separatists to function the way they’re functioning . . . without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training, and that is coming from Russia.”

I have a couple of thoughts. First, while this event is reprehensible, it's not without precedent. A number of passenger planes have been shot down over the years--including the American downing of an Iranian commercial airliner in 1988--without war following. This is a terrible, but people need to keep their heads on. In particular, I don't think it's helpful at a time like this to make belligerent, empty threats

In Europe, I think the Obama administration will likely find more support for increased economic and diplomatic isolation of Russia. How long this changed attitude toward firmer sanctions will actually last is another question, but for the near future I expect at least some measures to be taken in both Brussels and Washington. 

With Russia, on the other hand, my assumption is that the Kremlin will make a dedicated effort to end the fighting--at least for the time being. It is absolutely no surprise to me that Vladimir Putin's initial response was to call for a cease-fire

Putin will do this because Russia has no real interest in eastern Ukraine. Sure, there are some Russian speakers there who would prefer to live in Russia--and whose relations with Kyiv might be forever destroyed--but there's nothing in eastern Ukraine that Russia really needs. How many more Russian Clevelands do they require? 

A Diversion from Crimea

As I've maintained for a long time, Putin's actual goal in stirring up trouble in eastern Ukraine has been to make the world forget about Crimea. Russia has real interests in Crimea, including military (Sevastopol is the home of the Russian navy) and economic (especially regarding planned oil exploration off Crimea). Crimea is much more valuable to Russia than anything in eastern Ukraine.

Remember Crimea?

 Borderheads might remember that violent separatism in eastern Ukraine--which seems to have been largely a made-in Russia phenomenon--began to occur in the weeks immediately following Moscow's annexation of Crimea in March of this year. What I've been saying for some time is that Russia's adventure in eastern Ukraine was devised, at least in part, to get the world to stop talking about the place that really mattered to Moscow--Crimea.   

And look--it's worked! No one in the United States is talking about Crimea anymore. The annexation has been largely forgotten in the face of the mess that eastern Ukraine could end up becoming. 

Now, the world will just be grateful if calm is restored to eastern Ukraine so that we can go back to worrying about Israel and the Palestinians, ISIS, Syria, Libya, and a million other problems. If eastern Ukraine can turn back from the brink of this form of Yugoslavification, my bet is that no one (other than Kyiv and the Crimean Tatars) will bring up Crimea again. 

So if that is what Putin's goal in eastern Ukraine has been, then mission accomplished.   

Going for Kyiv

Something else that we need to keep in mind is that Putin's objective is not to win eastern Ukraine--he wants the whole country. What I mean by this is that he'd like to install a reliable pro-Russian regime in Kyiv and prevent Ukraine from joining the European Union or NATO. He could accomplish this in a number of different ways, but the easiest route would be through the creation of a deeply federalized Ukraine. 

Look for Putin to champion the cause of peace--and for the creation of largely autonomous regions within Ukraine. Putin, or another Russian leader, could then continue to use the threat of playing the eastern Ukraine card in future dealings with Kyiv. Keeping eastern Ukraine alive as a vulnerability for Kyiv is much more valuable to Moscow than annexing eastern Ukraine and losing the rest of the country.

Dangerous Games

Another point that I've often made here is that real warfare in Ukraine is actually quite dangerous for Moscow. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Russia generally supported the principle of non-intervention in other countries' affairs. While Moscow's support for Belgrade during those years was often seen in terms of mystical Orthodox Christian connections between Russians and Serbs, the Kremlin was mainly interested in defending the right of a multi-republic country like Yugoslavia to fight separatism within its own borders. 

Why? Because Russia is build the exact same way, upon an edifice of nationally-based republics and autonomous regions. Russia did not want the republics of Yugoslavia to gain international recognition as independent entities because Chechnya, Tatarstan and other republics within Russia were calling for sovereignty and independence in their own right. 

Republics and autonomous provinces of Yugolavia

Until 2008 and the one-week war that Russia fought against Georgia over southern Ossetia and Abkhazia,  Moscow's approach to the 'mini-republics' of Yugoslavia and the ex-USSR was based upon a view that defended the territorial integrity of multi-national states.

The 2008 conflict with Georgia, however, constituted an important change in Russia's approach to the mini-republics, with Moscow supporting the right of two mini-republics within Georgia--southern Ossetia and Abkhazia--to split away from Georgia and become 'independent' countries that are now de facto territories of Russia. 

Former mini-republics of Georgia

Russian mini-republics in N. Caucasus

This is a dangerous game for Russia, which not only has mini-republics (remember Chechnya) in the northern Caucasus (ie, bordering Georgia), but throughout the entire federation.
Mini-republics in pink

Do you see all that pink in the map above? Those are nationally-based republics inside Russia, several of which had independence movements that developed in the late 1980s and 1990s. These movements were suppressed, bought off, or otherwise put down during Putin's first years in power.

Made up of republics based around concentrations of non-Russian populations, the multi-national Russian Federation is in a precarious position with respect to the subject of national separatist movements. The ramifications of Putin's post-2008 approach to dealing with the mini-republics of neighboring countries--a policy that encourages separatism--might therefore actually prove quite destabilizing for Russia in the long run. 

In other words: how do you tell people in mini-republics like Chechnya, Tatarstan and Dagestan that they can't have more sovereignty after you've backed separatism in mini-republics like Southern Ossetia, Abkhazia and Crimea?

Obviously, sheer force matters more than logic with regard to such issues, at least in the short term. But Moscow is either for self-determination or against it. Supporting separatist movements among one's neighbors while crushing them at home is not a viable long-term option. 

And now?

For now, look for headlines telling you that American and European officials have agreed upon tougher sanctions against Moscow, with Putin bluffingly blustering that none of this matters to him. Behind the scenes, however, I think the Russian president will look to ease tensions in eastern Ukraine as much as he can, while pushing for a new--federative--deal for Russians in eastern Ukraine. Putin's goal, I think, is to calm everything down as much as he can while distancing Russia as much as possible from what the separatists do. What he'd really like to do is use his leverage to force Kyiv into accepting a federative agreement that would allow Russians in eastern Ukraine broad administrative and political (rather than just cultural) autonomy.

The real question for now is: how much control does the Kremlin still have over the separatists in eastern Ukraine? While the violence that has taken place there this year appears to have largely been a Kremlin creation, people who have taken up arms against their government might not be very eager to go back to their lousy peacetime lives. Even if it was the Kremlin that started this mess, Putin & Co. might not have the power to stop it now. 

And stopping things is something that I think the Russian leadership probably wants, at least for now. For the Kremlin, the downing of this airline must seem like an absolute political nightmare. Just when the world was beginning to worry more about the Middle East, Putin's idiot proteges in eastern Ukraine have dragged Russia back into the spotlight. What had been turning into a low-grade civil war that suited Moscow's interests is now back on the international community's agenda.

Photographs of plane wreckage in a cornfield have, against the Kremlin's wishes, reminded the world of what is taking place in eastern Ukraine. 

Now we will see what the world chooses to do with this information


Also see: 

Referenda Day

Next Stop, Kyiv?

The Great Game: The US and Russia in Post-Soviet Space

Bad Idea Jeans: Ukraine Edition

Will he or won't he? Putin and Eastern Ukraine

Crimea and Eastern Ukraine: Things Can Always Get Worse

Tough Options

Russia and the Politics of Citizenship

The Crimea: More Than Just a War

More Thoughts on the Crimea

Crimea on the Brink: What's Going On?  

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