ABC Radio National Between the Lines
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was blown from the Ukrainian sky a year ago.
It’s been a year since the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, which killed 298 people, including 38 Australians. Almost immediately, western intelligence agencies and politicians named the culprits: Russian-backed Ukrainian rebels firing missiles supplied by the Kremlin.
Although Moscow has denied any wrongdoing, the failure of the separatists to account fully for what happened on July 17, 2014 has angered the world. Meanwhile, the military standoff that sparked the blunder could turn into a US–Russian confrontation even more perilous than the Cold War.
The conventional wisdom in the west blames Russian aggression. Vladimir Putin, we are warned, is a monster bent on re-creating a greater Russia or the former Soviet empire. The bear is on the prowl. Last year, Crimea; today, eastern Ukraine; next, who knows? In response, the US and EU have imposed sanctions on Moscow, and Washington has pledged to help the Ukrainians defend themselves.
In Russia, meanwhile, Barack Obama is widely loathed and anti-American fervour remains high; Putin is under intense domestic pressure to respond more aggressively to western threats on Russia’s doorstep and brandish nuclear weapons to terrify Europe and split NATO.
So, how to end a crisis that has already left about 5,500 dead and 12,000 wounded?
For answers, listen to Stephen Cohen. A leading expert on Russian politics and history, he has long been affiliated with Princeton University and New York University. According to Cohen, we need to understand what caused the Ukraine crisis to have any hope of trying to resolve it.
Putin’s actions have been largely defensive, while the US and EU have been provocative, argues Cohen. The west’s campaign to encroach on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence that was bound to cause big trouble, as the late George Kennan, the intellectual architect of the Cold War containment doctrine and a long-time colleague of Cohen’s, predicted in the mid-to-late 1990s.
Go back to November 2013. The EU gave the elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, an ultimatum: sign a trade agreement with Europe or be isolated. In other words, Kiev could not have a trade deal with both Brussels and Moscow. The coup that toppled the democratically elected, pro-Russian leader in February 2014 — which came after years of NATO expansion towards the former Soviet Union’s frontiers — further upset Russian sensibilities.
From that moment, Cohen suggests, Putin has been reactive. In March 2014 Moscow took Crimea, the traditional home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, which Russian intelligence feared would become a NATO base. He has since sought to destabilise Ukraine with the aim of getting the country’s anti-Russia regime to protect the minority rights of ethnic Russians and jettison plans to join the west.
Does any of this justify Russia’s conduct? Not from the perspective of Kiev and the west. But from Moscow’s standpoint, Ukraine is a matter of intense strategic importance — among other things, it covers a huge expanse of terrain that the French and Germans had to cross to attack Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries. For Cohen, any Russian leader, autocrat or democrat, would push back against the expansion of a Cold War military pact into what Russia deemed its near-abroad well before Lenin and Stalin appeared on the scene.
Put it this way: how would Washington respond if another great power put missiles in Cuba, signed Panama into a military pact or helped topple a democratically elected, pro-US government in Mexico? As unfashionable as it is to say, when great powers believe vital strategic interests are at stake, they will fight tooth and nail to protect them.
But there is a way out of this crisis: Minsk II.
In February, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande brokered a truce between Putin and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko in the Belarusian capital. The four agreed to a ceasefire along the civil war line in eastern Ukraine, which has reduced clashes and casualties.
Alas, danger lurks. Kiev, egged on by the US Congress and Pentagon, wants heavy weaponry and troops to recapture Donetsk and Luhansk from pro-Russian rebels. That would goad Russia into sending planes, tanks and artillery to rout Kiev’s forces, which would inflict severe damage on the Ukrainian people.
Meanwhile, Putin is under tremendous internal pressure to adopt an offensive stance against any western military buildup in Ukraine and the Baltic states, where Moscow enjoys military superiority over NATO. A tit-for-tat game could lead to an exceedingly dangerous military escalation and a Cuban Missile Crisis-type of confrontation.
US acceptance of the European-backed Minsk accords, Cohen argues, would end tensions along the civil-war ceasefire line in eastern Ukraine. A political settlement would not only help create a prosperous but neutral Ukraine that does not threaten Russia, it would also allow Washington and its allies to repair their relations with Moscow.
With Minsk, all sides win. But if Washington and Brussels cling to the policies that caused the crisis, all sides lose. The choice, you would think, is obvious.
This article was originally published at ABC Radio National Between the Lines