The shooting down of the Malaysian Plane en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam on July 17, 2014 is a tragedy for the victims and their families. For Ukraine, however, could it be a political strategy, a mistake or an opportunity?
Whenever tragedy strikes, it is a sure bet there will be plenty of finger pointing. So it goes with the shooting down of the Malaysian Airplane carrying 298 passengers. As of this writing, the only constant to that tragedy is the finger pointing and the blame game. The most reliable information the world has at this point is the origin and the destination of the plane, the number of passengers onboard, the passengers’ nationalities and obviously their names. Beyond that, the lines are blurred.
The finger pointing is at best a dizzying exercise. The Ukrainian government blames Russia for its support of the rebels in the eastern part of Ukraine; Russia blames the Ukrainian government for not being flexible enough to work a deal with the rebels; the rebels accuse the Ukrainian government of downing the plane; the Ukrainian government accuses the rebels of being the culprits, assisted with Russia; and the international community is up in arms demanding explanations, answers and punishment for the perpetrators.
A brief historical view of the recent past events in Ukraine may help put into perspective what may have transpired. Keep in mind that the exercise to find the culprits of the tragedy is just an exercise. Following the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 — a Russia sympathizer (translation: a non-U.S. ally) — Crimea, one of the major cities in Ukraine bordered in the West with Russia, held a referendum on March 16, 2014. 96.77% of Crimean residents — not held at gunpoint — voted to rejoin Russia. Soon thereafter, the eastern region of Ukraine declared a referendum of its own to secede from the country. Despite a condemnation by the West, a skimpy statement by Russia for the separatists to “be nice” and threats from the Ukrainian government, the turnout to the polls for the referendum was successful. 74.87% & 75% respectively of eligible voters in Donetsk and Lugansk, the two major cities in the region, went to the polling stations. Although the West (U.S., U.K., Germany and France in particular) was quick to condemn the results of the referendum, the separatists hold their position to operate independently from the rest of the country, making the eastern region another area of Ukraine that’s no longer under the Ukrainian government’s control.
With Mr. Petro Poroshenko, the current Ukrainian president, a West sympathizer in power, Ukraine has been receiving economic, military and intelligence assistance from the West. The U.S. alone has already emptied the taxpayers’ pocket for one billion dollars in assistance to Ukraine. Given the state of chaos in the country, Crimea belongs to Russia; Donetsk & Lugansk are still in limbo but could turn Russian any day. The West has been busy pressuring Russia to help “tame the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine”. To expedite the process, the West drafted a new list of sanctions — presumably to sweeten the deal — to impose on Russia. I sometimes wonder what sort of morons are advisors to the U.S. president. I digress.
The Separatists are clearly a thorn in the Ukrainian government’s eyes. Mr. Poroshenko is being coached behind the scene by the West on dealing with the situation. A full crackdown by the Ukrainian government on the separatists would inevitably invite Russia into the situation. In fact, Russia already expressed its desire to protect “the Russians” in the eastern region of Ukraine. In March 2014, a 40,000-Russian-troop buildup in the eastern borders of Ukraine was ready to spring into action, which is a clear sign that Russia’a strategy against the West’s interference involves the possible invasion of Ukraine. The best effort by the West to solve the impasse peacefully seems rather too slow, and Mr. Poroshenko may have considered other options that could bring result a little faster. The shooting down of a commercial plane — the Malaysian plane or any other plane would do — would swiftly bring worldwide condemnation and immediate action to remove the thorn and sideline the rebels. When first conceived, it seemed brilliant, but not enough consideration was given to the aftermath. If we assume for a moment that the plane was shot down by the Ukrainian government, it has the resources and the means to locate planes flying at 33,000 feet and the fire power to bring such a plane down from a high altitude. And the motives would be glaring. No one would have expected the Ukrainian government to make any statement regarding its mea culpa, for there would be no conceivable explanation to have caused such tragedy; there would however be plenty of benefits to be harnessed.
The separatists or rebels have been defending their turf since after the referendum. Several instances of Ukrainian military planes claimed to be shot down by the separatists have already been recorded. Just prior to the Malaysian Plane tragedy news surfaced, a tweet by a Separatist Leader Igor Girkin was raving about a successful shoot down of another military plane, “In the vicinity of Torez, we just downed a plane, an AN-26. It is lying somewhere in the Progress Mine. We have issued warnings not to fly in our airspace. We have video confirming. The bird fell on a waste heap. Residential areas were not hit. Civilians were not injured.” Despite the denial that they possess weapons that could reach such altitude, the separatists had surely mistaken the commercial plane for a military or provided wrong intelligence and shot it down.
The separatist leader’s tweet is a clear indication there was no intention to go after a civilian plane. It is one of those “oops” scenes that stays with you for a very long time. The quick deletion of the tweet is another good indication that the separatists did make a mistake and are now in cover-up mode and damage control. The tragedy could certainly change the course of action for all parties. While it’s highly unlikely that the tragedy would put an end to their claim of independence of the eastern region, the support from Russia may diminish — albeit temporarily — and they will have to re-evaluate the shooting-down-plane strategy. In the meantime, the Ukrainian government will undoubtedly gain much stronger support from the international community. Russia would have an interesting play, to cave in to international pressure or take a hardline stance, both of which carry serious consequences. It remains to be seen how good Putin really is at playing the game of strategy on the world stage.
Follow Mike Ducheine on Twitter: @mducheiney
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