A lot of Europeans and Americans have been doing their best to pretend that the little war in Ukraine – like the once-little war in Syria – is somebody else’s problem. Thursday’s downing of a Malaysian jetliner ought to be a wake-up call.
Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the crash by blaming the deaths of the 295 people aboard on the Ukrainian government. That shows how helpful he’s going to be. All the evidence so far points toward his own proxies – the pro-Russian rebels he has been encouraging in eastern Ukraine.
For starters, there’s the fact that the Russian separatists – armed with Russian anti-aircraft missiles – have already been shooting down planes and helicopters right and left. Until Thursday, they’ve all been Ukrainian military aircraft.
Rebels were bragging about yet another combat kill Thursday before they discovered that the missile had brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. One separatist website identified the target as a military transport, “We have just shot down an AN-26 plane in the Torez region … We have warned emphatically, ‘Do not fly in our sky.’”
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The post vanished from the web as soon as the downed plane was identified as civilian. It must be embarrassing to be connected to hundreds of civilian bodies and body parts – of men, women and children – strewn over miles of Ukrainian countryside. Putin himself may now realize that inciting a civil war in the country next door is a riskier business than he’d imagined.
Unless the evidence starts pointing some other direction, Russia will be on the defensive for months. There will never be a better time to shame Putin into getting out of Ukraine. There will never be a better time to supply Ukraine with the finances and weaponry it needs to protect its independence.
President Obama has been relatively forceful in pushing for economic sanctions against Russia. He has restricted U.S. financing for large Russian banks and energy companies.
European governments have been more reluctant to do anything serious. One reason is that when they sanction Russia, they put their own assets at risk. Europe has invested heavily in Russian enterprises, and Russia has invested heavily in Western Europe.
But failing to stand up to Russia would be the biggest risk of all. Dictators who realize they can grab adjacent territory without consequences tend to be emboldened – especially when their conquests drive up their poll numbers at home.
Putin mourns the loss of the Russian empire known as the Soviet Union. If he discovers ever-yielding weakness on the part of the West, he might eventually set his sights on the Baltics or other NATO allies in Eastern Europe.
The people aboard Flight 17 were mostly Western Europeans. The dead reportedly include Dutch, British, German and Belgian citizens. Their leaders should take note.