In a compounding tragedy, a civilian airliner was shot down over Ukraine and investigators have been hampered from inspecting the site of the crash and recovering the bodies of the 298 people who were on board. For both, blame is centering on separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine and, by direct extension, on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin instigated this crisis and he holds the key for easing it and for preventing further tragedies, which otherwise seem inevitable given the recklessness both he and the rebels are displaying.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was blown out of the sky last week over rebel-held territory by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile. Pentagon officials say it is unlikely the rebels could have acquired or operated the missile system without Russian help.
If any further evidence of Putin’s calculated adventuring were needed, that provides it. First he stirred up trouble in Ukraine over its plans to align closer to Europe, then used the ensuing strife as a pretext for seizing Crimea. Now, he is arming rebels with sophisticated weapons they are using wantonly.
It matters in terms of the world’s response that the rebels may not have known they were targeting a civilian airliner, but it doesn’t matter in terms of assessing Putin’s indifference to suffering in Ukraine or anywhere else. He seems set on a path to reconstitute – in some fashion and to some extent – the corpse of the Soviet Union, whose loss he bemoans decades after its welcome demise.
Indeed, the aftermath of the crash has been handled as inexpertly as possible, with rebels preventing trained investigators from reaching the site, which has now been described as “severely compromised.” Rebels have also removed the bodies they could find and pawed through their belongings.
These events should make clear to all nations, especially in Europe, that Putin is pursuing an agenda that is in no one’s interest but his own. Only days before the crash, the United States ratcheted up sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its actions in Ukraine. Europe, likely fearing for its Russian energy supplies, has not followed suit. If this calamity doesn’t change minds there, it’s hard to imagine what will.
Indeed, Europe has the most to lose from the instability Putin is promoting outside of his borders. But because of close economic ties and reliance on Russian gas, the European Union has been reluctant to follow the American lead.
That may be changing. Germany, which was initially reluctant to impose tough sanctions, has pushed recently for much harsher ones. Italy was opposed, though, and as the European Union operates on consensus, the German proposals were watered down.
But if it can be shown that Russia’s fingerprints are on the disaster in Ukraine, it will become much more difficult for the EU to continue dallying.
Serious, life-and-death matters are afoot in Ukraine and if all or part of that nation falls to Russia, it will be impossible even for Europe to believe that Putin’s thirst for territory has been satisfied.
This is the time to act. The tragedy in Ukraine offers a moment to pressure Putin to relent in his proxy campaign. Led, if necessary, by the United States, Europe, Australia and other nations must speak together in demanding that Putin drop his machinations in Ukraine, abandon the rebels and pledge to live within Russia’s own borders, where there are plenty of issues requiring attention.