Alexander J. Motyl in Foreign Affairs (image: Maxim Zmeyev/Courtesy Reuters):
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.
Politically and economically, that couldn’t be worse news for Putin, who launched a charm offensive just last week at the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. Putin, worried about the Ukrainian army’s rapid advances on insurgent positions, met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and convinced her to agree to negotiations with the insurgents. His efforts — presumably deemed insincere by Washington — collapsed on Wednesday when the Obama administration imposed new financial sanctions on several important Russian banking and energy institutions, including Gazprombank, Novatek (an independent natural gas producer), the Rosneft Oil Company, and the VEB Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs. Hours later, the Russian stock market took a nosedive and the ruble fell.
Putin might have managed to muddle along. Although most of the West has been deeply critical of Russia and its support for separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, European and American policymakers have been hesitant to impose the most severe sanctions and have seemed ready to move on to other foreign policy issues, such as Iraq and the war between Israel and Hamas. Even the Obama administration’s recent round of sanctions was not as far-reaching as many critics of the president would have liked.
But the Malaysia Airlines crash will force both the United States and Europe to come to terms with unpleasant realities.