What MH17 means for Russia-Ukraine

By Ian Bremmer
July 18, 2014

Armed pro-Russian separatist stands on part of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

MH17 is an alarming escalation of the Ukraine conflict.

In the wake of a surface-to-air missile taking down a Malaysian airliner over Eastern Ukraine, everyone is pointing fingers. Kiev blames the pro-Russian “terrorists,” with Moscow responsible for providing them with intelligence and weapons. The separatists deny involvement and accuse Kiev of planning the attack, citing the Ukrainian military’s accidental shooting of a Siberian Airlines flight in 2001. Moscow blames the Ukrainian government for pushing the rebels into this violent situation — even if Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped short of pinning the airliner attack on Kiev. Despite the confusion, it’s clear what MH17 means: dramatic escalation and an even more combustible conflict.

Some analysts and pundits are viewing the downed flight as an opportunity to force Putin into tempering his support for the separatists. While clearer proof of pro-Russian separatist guilt does, in principle, provide the Russians with a reason to do so, it’s highly unlikely that Russia will seize the chance. The underlying fissures have not gone away — in fact, MH17 makes them even more pronounced.

Putin continues to view his country’s influence over Ukraine and the power to keep it from joining NATO as a national security interest of the highest order — the same way Israel wants to deter Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Recent events haven’t shifted Putin’s interests in the slightest. In fact, the three biggest changes coming out of the MH17 crash point to more escalation.

Armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk regionFirst, Putin’s statements blaming the Ukrainians will be exceedingly difficult to back away from. It’s not yet clear whether Russia will accept that separatists shot down the plane or instead deny, obfuscate and even refute the evidence. But either way, Moscow will maintain its claim that the Ukrainian government is responsible for driving the violence and destabilizing the region where the plane crashed. Moscow will leverage its state media to promote this message.

Second, with proof that pro-Russian separatists are to blame, we will see a material ramp-up in sanctions from both Europe and the United States — and on an accelerated schedule. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is out in front of the story, declaring early Friday that “Russia is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine at the moment.” Meanwhile, the United States would forge ahead, broadening financial, energy and possibly other sector sanctions against Russia. These increases will amount to an escalation, rather than a redirection, of the conflict. The sanctions would have a real impact on Russia’s economy and investor sentiment — existing sanctions already do — but it’s highly unlikely that they would shift Putin’s calculus in Ukraine.

Lastly, MH17 gives Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko more robust international support and more sympathy for his military campaign against the separatists, which has been moderately successful over the past few weeks. Now that he’s claimed that the “terrorists” are behind the attack, he has a responsibility to crack down on them further. He’ll likely make a more concerted push into rebel strongholds Donetsk and Luhansk. But this is going to be a bloody and uphill struggle — MH17 won’t change much on the battlefield, where urban house-to-house fighting will not proceed as cleanly as Poroshenko’s previous operations. We’re most likely heading to a stand-off, amidst prolonged violence and shorter tempers on all sides.

The downing of MH17 is not as much a sharp turn in the Ukraine conflict as it is an acceleration — shining an international spotlight on this deepening crisis.

PHOTOS: An armed pro-Russian separatist stands on part of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

23 comments

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The increased sanctions will have an effect not the “threat” of increased sanctions so I’m almost positive Kerry will “threaten” to increase sanctions for several months untill the Russians have backed the Ukrainians into a corner. Everyone KNOWS Obama is a paper pussycat who has one goal: Make America look weak. His lead from behind strategy allows his dictator friends to crush the opposition and change the worldview of the US from a stabilizing force to a meanspirited looser mush like..well like our POTUS.

Posted by gregio | Report as abusive

You can’t negotiate with rasPutin the terrorist. You just can’t. You won’t be able to sanction him into being a responsible member of the international community, either. rasPutin is at war with everyone that will not do as he commands, including his own people. rasPutin will kill anyone who gets in the way of his Soviet Union 2 abortion.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

It should mean much for – Aviation Safety folks (if there exists any at the international-level) to avoid the route in the first place knowing that there is shoot-down activity for the past few months in this air-space that’s known to be volatile.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

It is really sad that the Ukrainian government used a civilian plane flown directly over conflict zone where 20 aircraft were lost in the past month as
sacrifice goat just to gain more support from some neutral countries. It happened to me when Kosovo war was going on my flight form Amsterdam to Skopje was canceled then rescheduled for an extra charge of 40$ per passenger because they had to reroute the flight for security reasons.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Ukraina mess has been created by EU,US capitalist vampires as EU,US governments have been held hostages by those vampires as well as their own populism policies.
This is the fatal weak point of democratic capitalism where the greed of few individuals or entities might cause devasting consequences to hundred million others’ security and other countries integrities.
Eg : NBP ,HSBC etc

Posted by Athen | Report as abusive

From your article

” It’s not yet clear whether Russia will accept that separatists shot down the plane”

Where is the evidence?

Posted by tradingdaze | Report as abusive

It means a lot for Ukraine, who shut down the plane.

They will run out of lies and pay the consequences.

Posted by kommy | Report as abusive

Funny how when EU/US backed anarchists were shot by the elected government last Winter the Ukrainian President was forced from office …yet when the EU/US backed president kills hundreds of eastern Ukrainian citizens the EU/US blame the people getting killed.

All in the name of GREED!!!

Posted by SR37212 | Report as abusive

You know if there were the Middle East instead of the Ukraine, having “only” 300 civilians die in one day would be considered sort of an average day.

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

The plane MH17 was shot from the city Krasnoarmejsk, which is under control of the Junta.

There is a picture of SA-11 launcher, circulating on internet and alleging as a proof of Russian involvement.

Two missiles on this machine are missing. The exact address is Gorkogo 49, Krasnoarmejsk, next to a construction store Strojdom.

This city is under Junta control from May 11th.

Ukraine army got this plane.

Posted by kommy | Report as abusive

We are living in an immensely dangerous time. Any seemingly insignificant event could initiate a new major global conflict. Whether the downing of MH17 has been deliberate or accidental, one has to wait for full disclosure later. Meantime, world leaders should stop trading blame, just be patient.

Posted by boontee | Report as abusive

@boontee +1
The Bremer analysis is a good measured antidote to the more rabid dog fight of the commenters.
At least Malaysia is a rather “neutral” victim, and European AIDs researchers are not the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary.
Part of the blame should go to airlines that took the risk of the usual cheapest route, even though the airspace was closed to 32,000 feet, transport planes had been shot down by missiles, and the presence of Buks in the hands of the Ukraine military and the separatists and Buk capabilities were known.
An “accident waiting to happen”.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

@boontee – well said.

Hope the Austrlian PM and the like, are listening to some of this.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

I believe that Russian-backed separatists shot down this plan out of incompetence, not as an intentional “act of terror”. I also reject the using the term “terrorist” as a label to attach to your enemy “du jour.” If separatists were planting roadside bombs and blowing up bus stations, then yes, the label applies. But simply using your Russian bully friends to gain freedom from your current government and gain political power makes the a selfish revolt with little benefit to actual Ukrainians.

Posted by Timbuk3 | Report as abusive

I guess innocent till proven guilty does not apply to Russian

Posted by Hahahappy | Report as abusive

The apologies for Putin and the “separatists” (or in most appropriate vernacular, terrorists) are disturbing. Once again, as in the late 1930′s, a Russian autocrat preys upon the Ukrainian bloodlands. I wonder how some of the apologists for Putin would respond if the Crimean Tatars revolt in Crimea and try to slice away a piece of that turf,killing Russian security forces in the process, or if Chechen rebels downed a Russian airliner in the name of “freedom” and “independence” for Chechnya. Actually, we do know how Putin would respond as he did several years ago – by turning Chechnyan cities into rubble.
Russian fingers are all over this tragedy and lets hope the international community makes the flailing and sinking Russian economy scream.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

Russians are disgusting.

Posted by mike355f1 | Report as abusive

The apologies for Putin and the “separatists” (or in most appropriate vernacular, terrorists) are disturbing. Once again, as in the late 1930′s, a Russian autocrat preys upon the Ukrainian bloodlands. I wonder how some of the apologists for Putin would respond if the Crimean Tatars revolt in Crimea and try to slice away a piece of that turf,killing Russian security forces in the process, or if Chechen rebels downed a Russian airliner in the name of “freedom” and “independence” for Chechnya. Actually, we do know how Putin would respond as he did several years ago – by turning Chechnyan cities into rubble.
Russian fingers are all over this tragedy and lets hope the international community makes the flailing and sinking Russian economy scream.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

Bless the souls of those who perished in this attack. I can’t help but think that the picture that emerges from the evidence collected at the crash site will somehow feel like a carefully arranged diorama, meant to impart a particular view of events…my skepticism is telling me to question any conclusions that result from this investigation, at least in the short run, as tensions are high and all of those on the field (and many on the sidelines) are gaming to get in and make a play.

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

Those air traffic controllers picked one hell of a day to quit sniffing glue. :)

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

The Russians, and the Russians separatists in East Ukraine, should not go on the defensive over this accident – even if they’re truly responsible.

They should learn from the Americans who never apologize for the millions of innocents they’ve killed and continue to kill and their serial wars of aggression (e.g. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.).

Washington never apologizes for its equally-deadly sowing of political chaos (e.g. Ukraine, Venezuela), or its backing of terrorist organizations such as the Sunni extremists in Syria (Obama just gave them half a billion).

Washington and its European flunkies (Germany, France, Britain) never apologize for the slow-motion ethnic cleansing/genocide they’ve underwritten for decades against the Palestinian people.

East Ukraine is a war zone where a NATO/Washington-sponsored professional military is trying to impose itself by brute force on ethnic Russians seeking political autonomy. That airplane had no business flying there. People die in war zones, that’s what war zones are about.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

Tragic aftermath of yet another US-CIA led regime change.

The list just grows longer.

[Russia's invasion of Ukraine was spurred by U.S. behind-the-scenes actions, says former Ohio congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich.

"From what I'm hearing, you're blaming the USA for subverting Ukraine in the first place, thereby giving Putin a pass to go in and invade," he told Kucinich.

"That's close," Kucinich answered. "We should be concerned about the Ukrainian people, because they're being used right now. They would be used by the IMF in a new austerity program, by NATO to go on the doorstep of Russia."]

http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/russia- ukraine-covert-operations-Dennis-Kuchini ch/2014/03/04/id/556082/

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

oops…I’m repeating myself. Thought my earlier post was distinguished by moderators.

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive