By Charles Crawford
July 20th, 2014
The hours drift into days following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine. Yet there is no difficulty in identifying those responsible for this outrage. Russian military intelligence (GRU) operatives and technicians are swarming over eastern Ukraine and probably much of the rest of the country, monitoring in real time what is happening. Some are Russian troops operating illegally in Ukraine. Others are Ukrainians (or motley mercenaries from Serbia and elsewhere) on the GRU payroll.
The cause of the attack on the plane will have been known immediately to the Russian side. Missiles capable of hitting aircraft at that altitude cannot be fired without complex codes and technical support. The Russians know everything about the attack, down to the serial number of the missile and the names and breakfast rations of the people who ordered the attack. The Russians also know exactly what links there are (if any) between the people who fired the missile and their own GRU command structures.
The Americans will know a lot of this, too. We may not like global IT surveillance, but it resolves situations like this. Washington is doubtless poring through myriad satellite images and thousands of conversations in Russian military slang to establish in minute detail what happened when the missile was fired and who ordered it. Likewise, the Ukrainians know plenty – they do not have the GRU’s resources, but they are highly motivated to follow what the “rebels” and “separatists” are doing.
The issue, in short, is not any doubt about what actually happened. It is that the Russians – who know the most about it – are refusing to hand over to the world everything they know. Nor are they throwing their weight behind a rapid international effort to help the victims’ families by sealing and investigating the crash area in a normal way.
Instead of a principled, helpful and sensitive response from Moscow, we see a macabre spectacle of diplomatic bluster and evasion while the crash site is despoiled and manipulated. Murky alterations to the Wikipedia MH17 site are traced to Russian official buildings. Bodies are piled in unguarded railway refrigerator wagons. International officials are threatened at gunpoint by belligerent fanatics loyal to Moscow.
Poland has not been happy with the Russian performance following the plane crash at Smolensk in 2010 that killed President Lech Kaczynski and scores of senior Poles en route to a memorial service for the Katyn massacres. But Russia insists that under international law it should take the lead in investigating that disaster, as the plane crashed on Russian territory.
Here, Russia has a very different problem: the plane crashed in Ukraine. Moscow therefore faces the indignation and contempt of a wide range of countries for its handling of this crisis, above all for not using all its influence to push the rebels out of the way so that normal international procedures can take place.
This vile policy, on the part of permanent member of the UN Security Council, creates dilemmas for the rest of us – not least because Moscow’s behaviour and tone go way beyond anything normal or honourable, as understood under the international rules for such incidents that Russia itself helped to draft.
The Americans are in a difficult position. If they know that Russia’s GRU personnel were closely involved in the decision to attack the plane, this means that the highest political levels in Moscow carry direct command responsibility.
What to do with that information? If it is made public, calls for strong action against Putin and his team will swell in Washington and around the world. Yet what action might make a positive difference? More sanctions? Diplomatic isolation? Or would it be better to use this information only in tough private conversations with the Russians, in the hope of de-escalating the crisis and striking a strategic deal on Ukraine?
Under President Obama, US leadership has been scaled right back, in large part to avoid taking such awkward decisions. Obama none the less has a point in not wanting to get too far ahead of the USA’s dithering European allies – hence his typically detached assertion that it is up for Europe to “wake up” and consider tougher measures against Moscow. European leaders including David Cameron pile on the rhetoric (“Putin is a pariah”; “The world’s eyes are on Moscow”; “Europe and the West must fundamentally change their approach to Russia”) but without evincing any clear sense of what should be done when Russia digs in its heels.
The diplomatic problem is bad, and getting worse by the hour. What if it is established beyond any doubt that officers under Moscow’s command did have a hand in the murder of all those passengers? No one wants to say. But we can be sure that if GRU operatives are implicated in this catastrophe, under Putin’s leadership Moscow will do whatever it takes to deny any responsibility. If victims and their families are denied all human decency while feverish efforts are made to hide evidence of the crime, too bad.
The hardest challenge in diplomacy? Dealing with ruthless leaders who enjoy showing defiance based on a policy of “the worse, the better”.