The shooting down of Malaysia flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine takes on a further tragic dimension (as if it were needed) when one reflects on the fact that this tragedy was almost certainly avoidable.
Indeed, only a handful of American commentators warned that the abandonment of the February 21 agreement by the Western powers was not the beginning of the end but, rather, the end of the beginning. Seemingly little thought was given in Western circles anyway, as to how the Russian government, along with the eastern, Russophone half of Ukraine would react to the violent overthrow of a democratically elected president who had just agreed to both a significant reduction in his powers and to the formation of a “government of national unity” ten days hence. Early presidential elections were also agreed to be held no later than December 2014. Yet rather than stick by the agreement, the West abandoned it with the greatest of ease once the Ukrainian far right escalated the violence in the Maidan and drove then-President Yanukovych into exile.
The Russian government almost certainly—if the reports of the use of a SA-11 BUK surface-to-air missile to down the Malaysian plane are correct, as I suspect they are—has blood on its hands. President Putin was wrong to supply armaments to forces over which he has repeatedly and credibly claimed he has little control. To say that Putin’s reasons for doing so are not so hard to discern given the aggressive policy of eastern expansion of both NATO and the EU is not to excuse his government from its share of responsibility for this tragedy.
However, a rather large piece of the picture has been glossed over in the coverage of the doomed airliner: that of Kiev’s culpability. From the day he took office, Petro Poroshenko has consistently ratcheted up the violence against the breakaway provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. As recently as July 1, Poroshenko called an end to a ten-day cease-fire after two days of settlement negotiations with Russia, France and Germany. The reasons for this are also not hard to discern. Mr. Poroshenko is a captive of a Presidential office with limited powers and a cabinet that includes five members with far-right affiliations. And so the Orwellian-sounding “anti-terrorist operation” continued unabated, giving precious little reason for the rebels (and, for that matter, Moscow) to wrap things up as the death toll and the number of refugees in the eastern provinces ticks higher and higher.
The always-predictable mainstream media are now calling for even-more punishing sanctions on Russia. The evening of the incident, The Washington Post scolded the White House for continuing to “avoid measures that could inflict crushing damage on the Russian financial system and force Mr. Putin and the elites around him to choose between aggression in Ukraine and Russia’s economic future.”
Leaving aside the rather elementary fact that sanctions hardly ever change the behavior of the regimes at which they are aimed, consider this counterfactual: What if Mr. Obama had not announced a new round of sanctions against Russia on July 16? It is entirely possible that the murderous recklessness of the pro-Russian forces would have given Mr. Putin sufficient cover from his increasingly vocal right flank—who have been calling for greater Russian involvement, if not an outright invasion—to break with the rebels. What the July 16 sanctions announcement has done is effectively block the off-ramp. Yet the idea that sanctions may be counterproductive never seems to dawn on our establishment elites. Meanwhile the war hawks in Congress are eagerly chomping at the bit to retaliate, with their leader, Senator John McCain, promising there would “be hell to pay” if the Malaysian airliner was shot down by the Russian military or separatists.
One can’t help but wonder: hasn’t there been hell enough?