Three months of the Russia-led proxy war in Ukraine have claimed the lives of hundreds of Ukrainian servicemen and civilians. Until now, Western media have lazily ignored the complexity of the security crisis, while public opinion in the West has had more pressing concerns than an unfolding war on the edge of the European Union. EU politicians have had an easy ride in pretending to handle it.
But the downing of flight MH17 by pro-Russian militants is slowly changing perceptions in the West. It is still a war in a “faraway nation” but now with a dramatic number of foreign civilian casualties. If you had told a western European diplomat two weeks ago that EU citizens would be the next victims of Russia’s slowly-unfolding massacre in Ukraine, they would have dismissed you as paranoid and manipulative. Not any more.
The EU’s reaction to the downing of MH17 has evolved from cautious calls for investigation to a tentative consensus on the need to punish Russia for its support of the perpetrators. Yet talk of a resulting “de-escalation” seems out of place. It is clear that Russia aims to synchronize the cycles of violence in eastern Ukraine with symbolic gestures, such as allowing the separatists to give the aircraft’s black boxes to Malaysian authorities.
The shooting down of MH17 marks the first time in the whole Russian-Ukrainian war that the Russian propaganda machine has failed the Kremlin. Putin’s unexpected TV address on Sunday night was supposed to counter public outrage in the West without addressing its causes. The trick seems to have worked, at least partially. Continued bickering in the EU regarding the scope of sanctions has shown Russia it will have time for probing and coaxing EU member states even in times of the most critical crisis.
Cool-headed patience had its merits in the first 24 hours after the catastrophe, to let the facts be established. But the EU’s inaction is now laden with far deadlier consequences. The dangerous conclusion that Russia’s leadership will draw from the aftermath of MH17 is hardly counter-intuitive: killing EU citizens is not a “red line” at all, just a temporary irritant. Many of us in the think-tank community expected Russia to test the value of Nato guarantees at some point but no one expected it would happen so quickly and so covertly.
It may be tempting to view the downing of MH17 as a one-off event or an unpleasant accident. To do so overlooks the big picture of the conflict. True, audio recordings suggest the militants who launched the Buk missile did not realise it was a civilian aircraft full of foreign citizens. But the question of who gave the exact order to bring it down remains. All the leaders of the “separatist” groups are Russian citizens originating from or cooperating with Russian secret services.
To many of us watching the war in Ukraine, one pattern appears ever more distinct: if things can get worse, they will. This is a natural and horrible consequence of Russia’s attempts to raise the stakes for Ukraine and the West. Both should therefore brace themselves for worse. Gas supplies may be cut off not because Ukraine has not paid but as a result of attacks on the pipelines. That would make Austria think of ways to speed up South Stream all it wants this winter. Italy’s exports to Russia would be harmed by malfunctioning road and maritime infrastructure. Instead of dealing with talented Ukrainian students coming to study at its universities, Germany would have to increase its consular staff to deny entry to hundreds of migrants fleeing Ukraine. The EU’s fear of short-term losses will result in both financial losses and ballooning security risks.
Ukraine understands that fighting off Russia’s proxies will be a protracted matter. The government has already increased spending on the army and other security services and resumed a partial military draft. Russia’s tactics have so far relied on achieving a blitzkrieg in eastern Ukraine, similar to that in Crimea, but those tactics have failed. Although at a significant human cost, the Ukrainian army is proceeding with a slow but steady liberation of the Donbas cities from the militants. What Ukraine needs now is support for its military and for its capacity to control its borders.
The goal of sanctions against Russia is often framed in a wrong way. Deep sectoral sanctions are needed not to discourage Russia from waging war in eastern Ukraine but to cripple its capacity to sustain that effort in the long run. That requires a focus on the banking and energy sectors. The Russian leadership is emboldened to play the big game precisely because it does not believe the costs of waging war in Ukraine, imposed by the US and the EU, will be lasting or irreversible. The sanctions introduced by the US on July 16 may be the first sign of such consequences but the qualms being shown by the EU will have reassured the Russians.
Ukraine will fight off Russia’s proxies with or without the EU’s help. But if EU governments think that this war will pass them by, they are wrong. It is time to think of ways of limiting Russia’s capacity to wage this war in the long term rather than trying to deter the Kremlin from doing what it is intent on doing anyway.
Ievgen Vorobiov is a Ukraine analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.'via Blog this'