After the Shooting Down of MH 17 ...  We Are All Waiting for Something to Happen

tags: Russia, Ukraine, MH 17



Juliane Fuerst is a Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Bristol.


On July 17, flight MH 17 fell out of the sky and into a field near a village in Eastern Ukraine. A few hours later the world had changed. Something more than the plane had broken apart. The debris fell within a radius of 20km, but really its true reach is yet to be determined. The charred field near the village of Grabovo looked like a no man’s land, scarred by battle and littered with victims. Its implications, too, far transcend the physical. Not for a long time have East and West been separated by such an enormous and messy gulf. While international investigators and separatists are haggling over access to the crash site and pro-Russian rebel forces are picking through the victims’ belongings, the world waits. Something will have to happen now. Something decisive will have to move in the by-now-familiar constellation of a propaganda-spouting, hateful Russia, a desperate Ukraine asserting its territorial integrity and a West appalled by what is happening, but to various degrees hampered by economic realities. But what will it be? And what will be its consequences?

It is hard not to make comparison with two other tensions that have rocked or are rocking the world. One is historical. A hundred years ago the world was waiting to understand the consequences of the murder of Habsburg’s successor to the throne and his wife. On the 14th of August 1914 the waiting ended and the First World War began. Before it ended, it would cause the death of millions of people. The other is contemporary and almost eerie in its familiarity. In Israel and the Gaza strip, violence has reached a new climax, pushing Israeli-Palestinian peace into the far distance again. Here the conflict is so entrenched that no one even dares think of peaceful coexistence. An end to the current violence is the most people dare to hope for. Is either scenario likely for the Russian-Ukrainian conflict? Could the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner prove the powder keg that leads to a war involving many more actors and much more devastation? Or could the conflict become so entrenched that the no man’s land of Grabovo will remain a no man’s land for years to come – caught between the ambitions of fanatic separatists, Russian power games and Western inertia and fear?

While sweeping analogies always run the risk of over-simplification and incorrect associations, it is useful to bear 1914 and Gaza in mind, because they neatly demonstrate the two extremes of how to fail to resolve a conflict: The First World War is today seen as the result of over-reaction and over-commitment among the different powerful actors. In contrast, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been allowed to fester for so long that the result is a conflict so deep and hostile that it is hard to see an end to it. On the contrary, it has transcended its geographical location and become part of a much larger tension between the Western and Islamic world. Regardless of the question whether either conflict could have been avoided, they stand as stark warning of how pivotal the current moment in Ukraine is and how important it is for all actors concerned to make the right steps – whatever they may be.

In many ways, the Eastern Ukrainian crisis now exists on two linked, but increasingly separate levels. The level that is currently in the news and on the general public’s mind is a conflict between a sovereign state (Ukraine) and a group of armed insurgents, only a few of which are actually local to the area of fighting. By proxy, this level of the conflict is also a conflict between two Soviet successor states, Russia and Ukraine. Indeed given the presence of Russian weapons and trained militia one might just call it a war. The other level is more complex and is in danger of being forgotten at the moment. Yet the moment the fighting stops – for whatever reason – this level will determine the future of the area. The majority of Eastern Ukrainians are not happy with what has been happening in Kiev since the ouster of Yanukovich, whom, despite being corrupt and criminal, they considered one of their own. There is little to suggest that, without Russian manipulation, this area would ever have risen up in arms (which they did not have), but it would be foolish to think that once the separatists leave, the local population is going to embrace the new Ukraine with open arms. Indeed, their fears of being marginalized will have been augmented of late by a fear of punishment – especially of course, because they are at the moment at the mercy of the Russian media, which is busy telling them horror stories about Ukrainians crucifying a Russian-speaking boy.

This level of the conflict has a backstory, which makes it significant beyond Ukraine. Eastern and Western Ukrainian differences have been part of a global discourse between Russia (and many Russians living outside Russia) and the West for a long time. Russia has increasingly seen itself as a victim of Western politics, which it considers unsuited for its people and mentality, while the West has continued to push the open and democratic society agenda with too little attention to the extent it came to be seen as a form of neo-imperialism in a Russia traumatized by the loss of empire. More recent events have created new fault lines in this conflict, with Russia’s anti-liberal agenda joined by Western extremists of left and right and those who resent American economic, cultural and political dominance. The latter group erroneously believes that Putin’s Russia offers more freedom. In total this back story means that anything that is now taking place in Eastern Ukraine gets interpreted by people who have two very different lenses of analysis – one that considers human rights and international law as the gold standard, and one that believes that these very values and the politics surrounding them are stacked to belittle their nation.

While there is evidence that the different levels of the Ukrainian conflict overlap less and less in terms of personnel involved (some journalists say that up to 80% of all active fighters have come over from Russia), it is impossible to solve the military crisis (insurgent troops on Ukrainian territory) without affecting the outcome of the crisis of Ukrainian national sentiment (the fact that different parts of Ukraine have different views on what it means to be Ukrainian or indeed whether even to consider themselves Ukrainian). It is the double nature of the crisis that makes the problem so protracted and a good solution so difficult to find, not least because ignoring the second (and in many ways deeper) level of the crisis leaves Eastern Ukraine an open powder keg within the Ukrainian state. One of the most disconcerting aspects of the crisis was the speed with which a region that had grievances was transformed into an area of civil war with weaponry capable of killing hundreds of people at once. As long as Russia’s political culture does not change, eastern Ukraine will remain vulnerable.

Just as the two levels of the conflict are unhelpfully intertwined, every action by one of the parties concerned moves the whole construct of conflict, posing ever-new challenges. The shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft is a particularly consequential case in point. It has intensified a situation, in which the global public was just about to lose interest, into a moment of international tension, bereavement and fear. Every actor’s action or inaction is now highlighted in neon colours. Every feeling expressed in this conflict reaches a new crescendo.

Every conflict has a dark horse. In this case it is Russia- or, more accurately, the Russian state. Maybe it is even appropriate to use the word regime again with reference to Putin’s circle of power. While most observers have noted Russia’s reckless and malicious propaganda war and its covert support for the separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine – both of which are responsible for turning what was once a strong, but ultimately peaceful, difference between Ukrainian ethnicities into a civil war – the plane crash has forced Russia’s malevolent dealings into sharp focus. The fact that Russia is supplying the rebels with men and weapons – a longstanding allegation by the Ukrainian government – has become visible in the most obvious way. There is now a plethora of very powerful evidence, which suggests that the plane was shot down by the separatists in a tragic error. Yet there is no way that the rebels could have had the powerful missile system, which brought down the airliner, by accident. Both the machinery and, very likely, some manpower (even if only to provide training), must have come from Russia.

Moreover, the aftermath of the crash has served to create a propaganda campaign that could almost be a caricature of itself. Russian media first presented an accusation that Putin himself was supposed to have been shot down by Ukrainian artillery, and then suggested that the plane was filled with corpses to make the separatists look bad. Yet the voices coming from Moscow who expressed skepticism with the Kremlin line remain few and predictable – Pussy Riot, the writer Valdimir Sorokin and others known as oppositionists. Instead there is a defiant ‘the West wants to blame us’ attitude emanating from social media – and not only from people who have never left Russia. Yet in the frantic scrambling of the propaganda machine for alternative scenarios and – according to some commentators on the ground – on the streets in Moscow, there was something else in the air: a certain amount of fear or at least insecurity.

Fear is also something that exists in abundance in the West, even though it is rarely called such in the public sphere. Yet it is not only cynicism that makes the West hesitate. Fear in the Western world of how the conflict is developing exists on many levels – and more in Europe than in the USA: fear of economic ruin as a result of sanctions just when Europe was slowly coming out of the Euro crisis; fear of where to get the necessary gas to power Europe (again not really an American problem); fear of challenging Russia, which, more than once, has proved the graveyard of European armies. Indeed, in Germany in particular, one should not underestimate the collective memory that exists with regard to the traumas of the Eastern front in World War II and the subsequent occupation. A war with Russia – even if only by proxy – is a nightmare scenario for many Europeans, irrespective of its moral value. The crippling real and mental limitations of European powers vis-à-vis Russia have become glaringly obvious in the Dutch response, whose third most important trading partner is Russia. Even the country that has lost the most citizens in the crash is trying hard to avoid accusing Russia of responsibility and to leave Putin with a possibility to condemn the separatists without losing face. Yet, as evidence mounts implicating Russia, and the stories from the handling of victims and their belongings by the separatists get grimmer and grimmer, in the Netherlands and elsewhere anger is rising. Here too, people are now waiting for something to happen – even if few can formulate exactly what that should be.

Anger is something that is abundance in Ukraine. The disdain for Russia and Putin has in many quarters been joined by disillusionment and hostility toward the West. This does not bode well for the tasks that are awaiting Ukraine in the following months and years, in which it has to rely on the West to help achieve the desired and hard-fought transformation into a new state. Ironically, what Putin has failed to achieve over many years of diplomacy and threats is now much more part of the Ukrainian rhetoric than it has ever been before: the West is weak and morally corrupt because it puts economic interests before the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Last week 40 000 Ukrainians wrote to Angela Merkel thanking her as Frau von Ribbentrop (because of her joint statement with Putin to hold talks with the separatists) and some bloggers have suggested that the West and its inaction is more guilty of the plane disaster than Russia itself. So far, the West has done little to dispel such notions (which are less interesting in their content, which is nonsense, than in their reflection of the mood in the country). France is pushing ahead with the sale of a warship ordered by Russia in 2011, and the rest of the West is so far mainly active in rhetoric but not action.

Hence, the waiting continues. With every passing day it seems less and less likely that the plane crash might result in a reversal in the antagonism between East and West. Putin has not disowned the separatists or even shown particular enthusiasm in commiserating with the victims and their relatives. The West is playing for time, while debating how much self-hurt is required now to prevent hurt in the future. Its most effective bargaining chip – the sourcing of energy from a different market than Russia – is a long-term project. While the air is still in Europe, things are moving in Eastern Ukraine. The fighting has continued undiminished. The Ukrainian army is flying air raids and advancing towards Donetsk. The separatists are still getting support from Russia – now via missiles fired from Russian territory. Two fighter jets have just been shot down – this time from Russian territory. Things are running into a dangerously familiar stalemate. No side seems to be getting the upper hand militarily for the time being, none of the main actors seem to have altered their modus agendi.

If that continues, the ultimate result of the crash might not be a big bang but a long helpless sigh that will gradually become background noise. One effect of the shooting down of the Malaysian airplane is that Eastern Ukraine has now joined the world’s pariah regions – places that air traffic avoids, where few journalists go and other people not all - a basket case that, in the eyes of public opinion, cannot be helped. Eastern Ukraine, unlike Yugoslavia, is not a region, which Europeans know from their summer holidays. It is not an economic powerhouse. It only has natural resources not considered valuable anymore. Now that the skies are clear of foreign passers-by, it will be easy to forget about Eastern Ukraine. And that would be the worst outcome of all.


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