The Blame for MH 17 Isn’t Russia’s Alone

Clearly whoever fired that SA 11 BUK (a Soviet 1972 ground to air missile) bears the primary responsibility for shooting down the airliner. Although the Ukrainan army, like the Russian army, has this system, the position of the wreckage and the unhelpful behavior of the leaders of the self-styed Donetsk People’s Republic makes it virtually certain that they are responsible. It is not yet clear whether the system used was one of those that once formed part of the Ukrainian army or was recently supplied by Russia.

But Russia’s support for the Donetsk separatists is well known and the Donetsk “people’s republic” could hardly have been declared had Russia disapproved. But blame falls much wider than this. With warnings in place regarding the dangers of Ukrainian airspace which was therefore avoided by other airlines, how was it that MH 17 entered this airspace from the East? A Malaysian Airlines desire to save fuel costs with the shorter route? And the Captain of MH17 who bore ultimate responsibility for his plane’s security – why did he agree to the fly this route? And what is the responsibility of the Ukrainian aviation authorities? Did the plane have their permission to overfly? Was Ukrainian air traffic control in contact with this flight?

But the ultimate responsibility for this disaster falls on those whose actions led to the civil war in the Ukraine. There are three principal players – Russia, the European Union and the United States. The Ukraine is of great strategic and economic importance to the EU – it is the EU’s Near East (of Europe). For Russia, it is the Near West (of Europe) and also of prime importance economically. And it’s of much greater importance strategically to Russia as the highway for invasions and the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. As importantly, it is of prime importance historically and culturally as the cradle of Russian civilization – the old Russian capital being Kiev. I’ve found that is dear to every Russian.

So the Ukraine is above all a Russian and an EU interest and only secondarily a US interest. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, or at the very latest when the Ukraine came into the limelight after the brief Georgia war, the EU and Russia, as friendly neighbors, should have discussed at the highest level how to maintain the Ukraine as a neutral, economically successful area: a hyphen joining the east and the west of Europe. But even when the grumbling appendix of the Ukraine burst, the EU hurried to meet the desires of west Ukraine to have an association agreement without regard to the wishes of east Ukraine with its historically close ties to Russia.

This lacuna was all the more extraordinary after the brief Georgian/Russian war had showed more clearly than ever that any attempt to extend NATO to a former member of the Soviet Union would bring a forceful reaction – and the Ukraine was far more important to Russia than Georgia.

When Russia was well on the way to recovery as a world power after its nadir with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989/9, President Putin made a “frank,” but conciliatory speech speech in 2007 to the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy. He offered Russian cooperation on world affairs provided the United States reined in its “hyper use of military power which is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts” – a perfectly reasonable remark 4 years after the US/UK invasion of Iraq which many observers already recognized as having “set fire to the Middle East” as Brent Scowcroft, the Republicans’ leading security Guru had warned in 2002.

But Putin’s speech was described as “unhelpful” by NATO and the Putin was snubbed – not a wise move with a man of President Putin’s temperament or a powerful country with a major national interest. (The US had such an interest in Cuba – hence the missile Crisis, as did the UK in Poland for whose integrity Britain declared war on Germany in 1939).

It is scarcely credible that in 2008, barely a year later, G.W. Bush put forward a proposal to extend NATO to the Ukraine and Georgia. This in defiance of the solemn promise declared in the Kremlin by James Baker, then US Secretary of State, on 9 February 1989 that “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east (of a reunited Germany).” When the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, the Baltics and the East European countries which had been under Soviet occupation did join NATO with Russia’s tacit acceptance. But to seek to put NATO right on Russia’s doorstep clearly flouted the Baker declaration.

So one may reasonably date the beginnings of the Ukraine conflict to President G. W. Bush and Vice President Cheney’s neo-conservatives. Fast forward to 2014: as a direct result of the EU’s inability to engage with Russia even after President President Yanukovich was overthrown, the US became increasingly involved in what had been a European crisis. The EU made much of its talks with Kiev’s new pro-western government, but had no proposals to make to Russia – as usual where there is a security dimension, the 27 EU countries could not put together a package acceptable both to both East and West Ukraine and one which Russia would have found it hard to refuse.

Most unfortunately, the neo-conservatives in State and the CIA, who had kept their heads down after the election of President Obama with a mandate to repair the military and financial disasters of the Bush/Cheney years, saw the Ukraine as an opportunity to assert Western power there and to enfeeble Russia and give new life to their dream – the unipolar world of the New American Century as they termed their grouping. Hence, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s famous “epithet NOT deleted” open phone call to the US ambassador in Kiev impatiently by-passing the EU – her husband Robert Kagan is of course a neo-conservative leader. So we find State and the CIA taking on Putin’s Special Services on their home ground. With meaningful negotiations blocked, Putin made sure of Russia’s principal national interest and annexed the Crimea. So far, apparently less successfully, he has stirred up genuine discontent in East Ukraine – which got out of control with the loss of MH 17.

In the present feverish anti-Russian media hype, if we want an eventual return from conflict to cooperation, it is most important that this history is far more widely known.