For the moment it is impossible to say with certainty that pro-Russian separatists fired the missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 and killed the 298 people on board. However, what is perfectly clear is that it was the Kremlin that created the conditions of instability in the region that led to this tragedy, armed the Russian separatists, and illegally occupied Crimea, which was sovereign Ukrainian territory. Had it respected Ukraine’s right to govern itself rather than undermining its independence, this would not have happened and the families of the 298 would not be grieving.
This is not to say that Vladimir Putin wanted this outcome or planned for it. If anything, in recent weeks he may have been trying to disentangle himself from his allies in Ukraine, many of whom appear to be beyond his direct control. President Putin has, in fact, created a monster in his own backyard that is now inflicting considerable damage on Russia’s relations with the rest of the world, her already tarnished reputation and on her economy. That an intercepted phone call suggests the downing of a civilian plane was a mistake only reinforces the sense of a situation spiralling out of control.
Ultimately, Mr Putin must bear responsibility for what happened because he did indeed create the forces that led to this massacre in the skies. Russia has to be held accountable for what is not far from an act of state-sponsored terrorism. The West failed to act sufficiently punitively when Russia annexed Crimea; it must not fail to do so now. President Obama says that the international community cannot stand “idly by”, and Senator John McCain promised there would be “hell to pay”, and those pledges need to be upheld. Hell, in this case, means further damage to the Russian economy, adding to the economic sanctions already implemented. There should be no loosening of these additional measures until the Kremlin starts to co-operate with its neighbour and helps, or at least allows, the Ukrainian authorities to regain control of their contested regions. In particular, those responsible for the attack on MH17 must be brought to justice, and the full story of how they procured such sophisticated weaponry has to be told.
It is difficult to believe that post-Soviet Russia should have ended up where it is today, as much of an international pariah as in the days of Brezhnev. The spread of nationalities on board the airliner reinforces the international nature of the outrage, and adds to Russia’s diplomatic isolation. When the Soviet Union collapsed almost a quarter of a century ago, it was meant to be the end of Russian adventurism, if not the end of history. It was also supposed to be the end of Russian militarism and militant nationalism, the end of oppression and the end of economic stagnation. Instead, we find her invading neighbours, promulgating homophobic laws and allowing the economy to slide back towards a reliance on oil, gas and agriculture, hardly the make of a technologically advanced state.
Indeed, the fate of MH17 is gruesomely reminiscent of when the Russians shot down a Korean Airlines flight over their airspace in 1983. Through accident and through design, Vladimir Putin’s leadership of his nation is pushing it back towards Cold War conditions at home and abroad. Perhaps Mr Putin will stop playing his games now, and, if he can, tame the terrorists he has helped to create.