MH17 is an alarming escalation of the Ukraine conflict.
In the wake of a surface-to-air missile taking down a Malaysian airliner over Eastern Ukraine, everyone is pointing fingers. Kiev blames the pro-Russian “terrorists,” with Moscow responsible for providing them with intelligence and weapons. The separatists deny involvement and accuse Kiev of planning the attack, citing the Ukrainian military’s accidental shooting of a Siberian Airlines flight in 2001. Moscow blames the Ukrainian government for pushing the rebels into this violent situation ― even if Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped short of pinning the airliner attack on Kiev. Despite the confusion, it’s clear what MH17 means: dramatic escalation and an even more combustible conflict.
Some analysts and pundits are viewing the downed flight as an opportunity to force Putin into tempering his support for the separatists. While clearer proof of pro-Russian separatist guilt does, in principle, provide the Russians with a reason to do so, it’s highly unlikely that Russia will seize the chance. The underlying fissures have not gone away ― in fact, MH17 makes them even more pronounced.
Putin continues to view his country’s influence over Ukraine and the power to keep it from joining NATO as a national security interest of the highest order ― the same way Israel wants to deter Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Recent events haven’t shifted Putin’s interests in the slightest. In fact, the three biggest changes coming out of the MH17 crash point to more escalation.
First, Putin’s statements blaming the Ukrainians will be exceedingly difficult to back away from. It’s not yet clear whether Russia will accept that separatists shot down the plane or instead deny, obfuscate and even refute the evidence. But either way, Moscow will maintain its claim that the Ukrainian government is responsible for driving the violence and destabilizing the region where the plane crashed. Moscow will leverage its state media to promote this message.
Second, with proof that pro-Russian separatists are to blame, we will see a material ramp-up in sanctions from both Europe and the United States ― and on an accelerated schedule. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is out in front of the story, declaring early Friday that “Russia is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine at the moment.” Meanwhile, the United States would forge ahead, broadening financial, energy and possibly other sector sanctions against Russia. These increases will amount to an escalation, rather than a redirection, of the conflict. The sanctions would have a real impact on Russia’s economy and investor sentiment ― existing sanctions already do ― but it’s highly unlikely that they would shift Putin’s calculus in Ukraine.
Lastly, MH17 gives Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko more robust international support and more sympathy for his military campaign against the separatists, which has been moderately successful over the past few weeks. Now that he’s claimed that the “terrorists” are behind the attack, he has a responsibility to crack down on them further. He’ll likely make a more concerted push into rebel strongholds Donetsk and Luhansk. But this is going to be a bloody and uphill struggle ― MH17 won’t change much on the battlefield, where urban house-to-house fighting will not proceed as cleanly as Poroshenko’s previous operations. We’re most likely heading to a stand-off, amidst prolonged violence and shorter tempers on all sides.
The downing of MH17 is not as much a sharp turn in the Ukraine conflict as it is an acceleration ― shining an international spotlight on this deepening crisis.