Russia’s Ukraine gambit backfires

But the bear will be back.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

Malaysian Airlines MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17 with the loss of 298 passengers and crew including 28 Australians.

MH17 was downed by a missile, fired from within territory held by pro-Russian separatists, in eastern Ukraine. The weapon is believed to have been a Russian “Buk” surface-to-air missile.

As of writing, there is strong circumstantial evidence that the missile was supplied by Russia to the separatist rebels, together with the missile’s launch vehicle and supporting radar.  It is probable that Russia also despatched technicians to operate the weapon system. Ukrainian authorities claim that this equipment and its accompanying personnel were withdrawn, subsequently, back across the border into Russia. 

Having said that, the possibility that MH17 was accidentally shot down by Ukrainian forces has not been ruled out absolutely.  However, given that it was separatists, or their Russian backers, who were shooting down planes in the days prior to the MH17 disaster — Ukraine lost an An-26 military transport aircraft and two Su-25s — the weight of the evidence points to pro-Russian insurgents as responsible for shooting down the airliner. 

Prime Minister, Tony Abbott’s summation of the circumstances — “Russian-controlled territory, Russian-backed rebels, quite likely a Russian-supplied weapon …” – was sound in both substance and tone. 

The separatist rebellion is eastern Ukraine, now centred upon the provinces of Lugansk and Donetz, is not a self-sustaining movement. It is Russian-sponsored and supplied.

The insurrectionaries are very well equipped, especially for defensive urban warfare, and are better organised than one would expect of a merely spontaneous rebel movement. The performance of rebel forces in the field suggests that they are advised by, and perhaps led by, Russian special operations troops or by former Russian “special ops” personnel. 

Reports, for example by the authoritative Stratfor, indicate that the Russian armed forces’ Main Intelligence Directorate – or GRU – together with elements of the 45 Spetsnaz Regiment, a unit under GRU control, have been active on the ground in east Ukraine since at least March this year. 

It’s a shocking bungle to mistake a civilian airliner for a military aircraft.  The Americans lamentably have done the same.  On 3 July 1988 the USS Vincennes shot down an Iran Air operated A300 Airbus with the loss of 290 passengers and crew.  Nevertheless, this latest catastrophic error has not only scattered some 300 innocent lives across east Ukraine farmland but also has dropped them, morally speaking, right into Mr Putin’s lap. There can be no evading the role which Russian policy – Vladimir Putin’s policy — has played in their deaths.

If Russia can’t hold Ukraine within its sphere of influence, it intends to dismantle the country.  There is, however, a solution …

The soul-shaking nature of this event has been felt, we can be certain, even in the Kremlin.  It’s a blow far more stunning to the Russians than Viktor Yanukovich’s unexpected flight from Kiev on 22 February this year. Would it be naïve, then, to hope that this tragedy could signal the end of the rebellion in east Ukraine? 

Thwarted plans

As it is, Russia has already failed in its immediate objective.  This has been to spark, in imitation of what it achieved in Crimea, a popular movement in east Ukraine in favour of reunion with Russia. There has been, however, no such popular upsurge of reunification sentiment in east Ukraine.

East Ukrainians do feel that they have been dudded, twice over, by West Ukrainians: first, in the Orange Revolution (of November 2004-January 2005) and, secondly, in the “Maidan” revolution (of November 2013-February 2014). But, for all that, the majority of easterners do not appear to have pined mightily for government from Moscow.  And, after the experience of the last few months, with rebels kidnapping and murdering people, holding others for ransom, hijacking cars and robbing banks, and with war arriving on their doorsteps as the Kiev government stands and fights, what enthusiasm for reunion there might have been has faded. 

Nonetheless, it is far from certain that Russia will back off.  The mining, since the shooting down of MH17, of Ukrainian territorial waters in the Sea of Azov suggests that Russia has no intention of abandoning its campaign against Ukraine and the Poroshenko government. It might withdraw somewhat its support for the rebels; it might open new fronts; it might even retire temporarily on all fronts.  But the bottom line is this: if Russia can’t hold Ukraine within its sphere of influence, it intends to dismantle the country. If Russia cannot have its way, it is determined to reduce Ukraine to a landlocked rump shorn of its Black Sea port cities, great iron ore and coal mines and its chief industrial centres. 

Our man in Kiev 

What position should Australia take? Should we bring back our dead and leave Ukraine to its fate?

No we can’t.

We should not underestimate the nature of the crisis: Ukraine is the place on the map where World peace is most at stake in the present moment and has been so for many months.

This is not, by the way, solely the result of Russian policy.  Gross miscalculation, and an insouciant indifference to Russian national interests, by Ukrainian politicians and western “diplomatists” have played their part. 

Now we have to do our own small bit to restore a fragile peace.  And that calls for, I think, a pro-Ukraine diplomacy designed to help that country repair the damage inflicted upon it by the Soviet experience from which, after 23 years of independence, it is still struggling to recover. 

Remember, our people were killed accidentally; but the accident happened because Russia does not want Ukraine to become a whole, hale and hearty Slavic state living independently, and in military alliance with the West, on Russia’s south west flank. Russia has made it clear. It will make war to prevent this.

There is, however, a solution to the problem posed by Ukraine and the aspirations of the clear majority of its people: a pro-Western Ukraine, strong enough to deal independently with Russian subversion and to deter outright invasion, but a Ukraine that must remain outside NATO for as far ahead as we can see. 

Australia has long misjudged the importance of Ukraine and hitherto has declined to appoint an ambassador to Kiev.

Bizarrely, Australia’s relations with Ukraine have been managed by ambassadors appointed, in the past, to Vienna and, presently, to Warsaw. Ukrainians wanting to travel to Australia have to apply to our Moscow embassy for a visa.  Vienna, Warsaw, Moscow? They are all capitals of Ukraine’s sometime imperial overlords. How maladroit.

It is time we appointed a full ambassador to Kiev and sent him on a distinctly Australian mission. We owe it to our dead.

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