Judging by the many news articles, op-eds,and editorials, most urging action, the news of the day continues to be the Malaysian passenger jet shot down over the eastern Ukraine. The most likely explanation seems to be that it was shot down by trigger-happy pro-Russian separatists. As usual the opinionators are getting pretty far out in front of the known facts. What we know seems to be limited to the fact that the jet crashed. What we have pretty fair reason to suspect is that it was shot down and, if that’s the case, the most likely culprits are pro-Russian separatists, the surface to air missile used to bring the airliner down from an altitude of 33,000 feet was a weapon possessed both by the Ukrainian and Russian militaries, and it’s sophisticated weaponry, i.e. it requires a substantial amount of training to use.
We don’t absolutely know who was responsible and, importantly, we don’t know how they got their hands on the weapon.
Many of the opinion pieces make a sort of “no sparrow falls” assumption: that Vladimir Putin is responsible for anything that happens in Ukraine. This example from The Daily Beast is typical of the genre:
Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the Ukrainian government for the crash, an absurd statement even by his own standards. “This tragedy would not have happened if there had been peace on that land, or in any case if military operations in southeastern Ukraine had not been renewed,” Putin said, the geopolitical equivalent of blaming the rape victim for her misfortune. The reason why there is no “peace” in Ukraine is because of the Russian government’s barely disguised strategy of funding and equipping a violent insurgency that has now gone on for months and taken hundreds of lives. Thursday’s horrific tragedy was the consequence of Russian war-mongering; if you give guns, missiles, training, and logistical support to a band of drunken thugs, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that something like this might happen.
While it’s possible that Pres. Putin is directly implicated in the transfer of the weapon used to whoever used it and specifically authorized the attack, we just don’t know. It seems like a stretch to me. I don’t see anything in his background or behavior to lead me to believe that he’d be that reckless.
The second common trope is that if we (or “the West”) were only tougher the airliner would never have been shot down. That, too, is exemplified in the article cited above:
And so the world’s shock at the catastrophe is misplaced. For too long, Moscow’s flagrant violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and destabilization of the European security order have been met by a tepid Western response.
Robert Beckhusen at Matthew Gault at WiB make a pretty good case that some kind of response is called for from the United States and the EU:
Shooting down a civilian airliner is an international crisis more serious than anything since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in February. Destroying a civilian airliner is a big deal.
Where before the war contained itself to eastern Ukraine, it’s now threatening the freedom of the skies which civil aviation and the world economy depends. The rebels are not just messing with Malaysia Airlines—they’re messing with world trade. Airlines are now avoiding Ukrainian airspace, as seen from this screen capture from flight-tracking Website Flightradar24.
I think we need to keep two things in mind. First, the Russians are the only ones in a position to end the conflict in the Ukraine. Second, the United States and Russia remain the only countries capable of destroying the world so, consequently, there are limits to how bad we should allow our bilateral relationship to become.
Consequently, I believe that our words and deeds should be measured according to two standards. Are we making it more or less likely that the Russians will allow the conflict in the Ukraine to end or bring it to an end? And second, are we gambling with nuclear war?
From a practical standpoint what can be done to Russia is pretty limited as long as the Europeans continue to pursue their lucrative trade in military hardware with the Russians. In just the last month the French, the Italians, and the Germans have all sold important military gear to the Russians. For them, it’s apparently business as usual.