Sunday, 20 July 2014

Business as usual?

Has the world really changed with the crash of MH17? In fact, what does it take to change a world, a region, a conflict? The shooting down of a civilian airplane? Not at Moneron Island in 1983, it didn't; nor in the Persian Gulf five years later. Moscow delayed, then accused the plane of spying. Washington just stuck to the story of how the crisis was Iran's fault, anyway.

Does it matter that so many of the dead this time are European? No, it shouldn't, but does it? For how much the world / the West gets involved? OK, many Americans died in 1983, but that was the Soviet Union, for crying out loud, the "Empire of Evil" - the Soviets were supposed to do this sort of stuff! (how the deuce Rust ever made it...did he not watch Firefox?) Does the West have the same expectations of Russia now? Should it have? Oh, in what a difficult dilemma does Volodia find himself...

What to do, what to do, if you sit behind the walls of the Kremlin? The Russian leadership mostly seems intent on downplaying the crash. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announces that Russia and the US have agreed an independent inquiry and adherence to the Geneva Principles for peace in Ukraine. Like a great power Russia yearns to be important, to be indispensable in international affairs. But, see, this is what Volodia and his chums have a problem understanding: Being indispensable does not a great power make. It does not even a medium power make. A great power actually tries to solve something; to develop situations, to help somehow. And that, alas, seems very far from the capabilities of today's Russian regime.

Did Volodia and Dima sit at the controls, playing Space Invaders with holiday-goers? You know, I don't think they did. And I don't think many observers, apart perhaps from some members of the Ukrainian leadership, would suspect the Russian elite of having declared war on the world. Yet the crime of which many observers are accusing the Russian leadership is the crime of neglect; neglect in the Pandoran sense where the jack-in-the-box is replaced with warheads. To show that Russia is indispensable, yes. But perhaps irresponsible, too.

Russian political analyst Iulia Latynina very interestingly stated that Russia has now "been caught up with" Gaddafi and bin Laden. No, Latynina is not saying anything as simple as "Russia is a terror-state." Instead, I think, her point is that Volodia is well on his way to making his state (sorry, the state of all Russians over which Volodia has claimed ownership) improper - dare we say "uncivilised" - in international affairs. This is not because Volodia is a "bad man," but because he seems caught between several illusions of what actually makes a civilised state in/of international affairs.

There is an old story, told to me more than a decade ago, about the Soviet embassy in West Berlin. Now, this was of course one of the most important centres of espionage activity for the Soviet Union (and everyone else) during the Cold War. At the embassy was a spy-master, an analyst capable of putting together highly detailed analyses of Western affairs based on information from the myriad of Soviet agents in the field sending him any and all possible pieces of information of which they could get hold. Then, one day the spy-master had to go back to Moscow suddenly, family matters I believe, and his replacement was not quickly found. Yet while his post remained empty, all the little agents milling about kept sending the embassy all sorts of information, in a wonderful confusion of absolutely no order of priority at all, for these little agents could not themselves conduct analysis. It was not their job. Sometimes, it does matter that Volodia is a former field agent in the Soviet foreign intelligence service...

Yet I digress. A friend of mine, a very competent analyst, pointed out shortly after the crash that there was an outside risk Ukraine might have shot down the plane. While I agree with the possibility that Ukraine might have mistaken the plane for a Russian spy plane I would assume that the Ukrainian military would have the technology and training to recognise civilian versus military aircraft, especially considering the frequency with which civilian aircraft overflew the area of the crash. Similarly, all thoughts of the plane crashing "by itself," so to speak, seem to have been debunked. So the quite strong suspicion remains that the plane was shot down by separatists based in eastern Ukraine; separatists over which Russia admits to have influence; and over which Russia has control according to the West.

And here we are back at Volodia's illusions. Hands up, who remembers the Sochi Winter Olympics? Come on - they even had Sugarpova at the opening ceremony... I joke, but the tragedy - and for Volodia this is a tragedy - is that the Sochi Olympics actually went quite well. Good organisation, welcoming to spectators (well, not the Circassians, but you know...), great venues, and engaged spectators. Even quite a few Russian medals. So hunky-dory all! Yet (and now for the tragic part) Volodia meant for the Winter Olympics to change the image of Russia and his regime abroad. The guy really wants to be loved. And, in terms of international perceptions of Russia (or domestic perceptions, for that matter), the Winter Olympics did diddly-squat.

You see, Volodia, you've got to make up your mind now! If you really want to be a scary leader of a scary country, you can be that - well, you can try anyway. Yet you better make damn sure to get better at it real quickly, because - right now - you're not that scary, at all. And if you really want to be lovable, then you can be that, too - maybe, sort of - but you've clearly got some work to do there, too.

Don't get me wrong: the brutal incineration of almost 300 innocent souls, the subsequent mistreatment of their bodies and the (alleged) disappearance of some of their effects is horrifying and has left the world reeling in shock. But the overall picture, emerging more and more clearly, is one of idiotic incompetence - more Clouseau in a Dumb State than Cushing in a Death Star...

No, Volodia, you (probably) did not order that drunk militia-man to fire warning shots at the OSCE. No, Volodia, you (probably) did not order the separatist administrations to move pieces of the wreckage back and forth so many times that separatist leaders now seem uncertain of whether they have the black boxes or not. But, Volodia, nobody in the West gives a damn! You have made so certain to create and consolidate a "power vertikal" not just in Russia but in much of the other successor states, too, that you can now be blamed for pretty much anything bad happening there. You are, in Philip Hammond's slightly hyperbolic words, leading Russia towards the status of a "pariah state." And, in the Daily Mail's phrase, for such a state "THERE'LL BE HELL TO PAY!" (on a side note, could somebody please take the nice people at the Daily Mail into a warm, comfortable room, hold their hands and explain to them, with compassion, that it would be best for everyone if they could now be quiet and let the grown-ups do the talking. Maybe Daily Mail could concentrate on gardening and nature...or maybe not, they'll probably just get their badgers in a twist again...)

Yet if Volodia's Russia can be blamed for all things wicked, and at the same time look oh so befuddled, then it is "business as usual," and then Volodia is in the worst of all worlds. If he didn't care about the West, Volodia's problem would be less. As a state Russia remains easily strong enough to ward off direct threats to its sovereignty; threats to Volodia's sovereignty will come from inside his regime, if at all. Sanctions can hurt Russia, yet now China offers a way out (well, a redirection to a slightly slower-cooking soup, but anyway...). Yet Volodia's Russia is not a great power, and won't become a great power, for "with great power comes great responsibility." Right now, I'm afraid, Russia is showing neither.

There is a story that then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, in 1993 responded to public panicking over chaotic monetary reforms with the words:

"Хотели как лучше, а получилось как всегда." 

No, Volodia is not a nice fellow, but neither is he a tough decisive leader (Nicholas I would find the comparison rather insulting) and the above sentence is very much in danger of becoming Volodia's epitaph.

Especially is he continues with his "business as usual."

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Into the maelstrom

This is what we know so far:

  • At 4.41 pm BST today reported that a Malaysian airplane had crashed on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
  • The flight was MH17 from Malaysian Airlines flying at 10 kilometre altitude from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
  • An official from the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior stated the plane had been shot down by a BUK surface-to-air missile, and that all 295 passengers and crew had died. The Ukrainian government stated it was not involved, and suggested the plane may have been shot down, comparing it to recent attacks by separatists on Ukrainian military planes.
  • Aleksandr Borodai, prominent in the separatist forces, claimed the plane had been shot down by the Ukrainian Air Force.
  • A range of commercial airlines have declared they now will not fly over eastern Ukraine.

It is now certain that the plane did crash, leading to the death of almost 300 people. Which are the possible explanations for this horrific event?

  1. Could the airplane have crashed by itself? This is highly unlikely. There are no reasons to suspect that the plane should have malfunctioned to the point of crashing; air traffic controllers claim all messages from the plane were normal until it disappeared from their screens.
  2. Could the airplane have been hit by a bomb; either in the hold or a suicide bomber? There is little reason to suspect that a bomb should have been slipped through the safety checks at Schiphol Airport; and it would be a remarkable coincidence if a bomb in the airplane would detonate precisely over an active combat zone where military planes were shot down just days ago.
  3. Could the airplane have been shot down by the Ukrainian military? These troops would have the ability to shoot down the airplane, but it is difficult to see why they should do so. There is little reason why the Ukrainian military should have mistaken the airplane for a separatist plane, consider the separatists have not flown any airplanes so far. 
  4. Could the airplane have been shot down by the separatists in Ukraine? It is possible that the separatists have acquired the BUK missile systems that allegedly was used to shoot down the plane, but it is difficult to see why they should have done so, or why they should have mistaken the airplane for a military airplane, especially given the height at which it was flying. An analyst on BBC has speculated, however, that the separatists, unlike governments, might not be able to distinguish electronically civilian versus military aircraft.

If, and this remains a big if, the airplane was shot down deliberately there remains the question of motive. 
  • Why would the Ukrainian military shoot down the airplane? Ukraine is winning the military battle in the region and has little reason to escalate the conflict.
  • Why would the separatists shoot down the airplane? They are losing the battle but shooting down a civilian airplane would not help their cause.
  • Why would any Russian-led forces shoot down the airplane? Elements in the Russian state may have an interest in keeping the trouble in eastern Ukraine going to some extent, but scaring international airlines from using the airspace makes little political, military or commercial sense.

There remains one, very remote, possibility that some party wants to use this catastrophe to escalate the current crisis beyond the area to which it has so far been contained. If this is the case - and I have currently seen no strong indications that it is the case - then the reasonably calm reactions from all sides so far is a sign that such a plan might fail.

This does not mean that a possible shooting down of the aircraft should not have consequences for the parties responsible; even if this was a mistake. But the next days must be focused on fact-finding before such steps are taken.