Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What makes a "smoking gun" in international affairs?

Fred Kaplan in Putin's Fingerprints Slate 07/21/2014 accepts the theory that Russian separatists are responsible for the shootdown of Malaysian Flight MH17 over Ukraine. Kaplan has a solid record as a policy analyst, so I take what he says seriously, although his apparent conclusion does seem to be ahead of the evidence in the public record.

But I'm struck by the reasoning he uses to attach responsibility to Putin's regime:

Since the conflict with separatists in eastern Ukraine started just this past spring, this raises the question: Are the people who shot down the Malaysian airliner pro-Russian separatists — or are they Russian air-defense officers who trekked across the border to assist their ethnic brethren? Either way, it’s not the case that Putin simply encouraged the rebels to fight and supplied them with missiles, making him indirectly responsible for the shoot-down; it's that his officers are directly responsible, either by training the separatist shooters or by being the shooters themselves.

That doesn't mean, as some are wailing, that Putin or the shooter is a "mass murderer" or a "war criminal." Nobody believes that the crew manning the SA-11 in eastern Ukraine meant to shoot down the Boeing 777. Whether because of human error, mechanical error, or the "fog of war" in its manifold layers, these things happen when civilians wander into (or over) a battlefield, usually through no fault of their own.

However, precisely because of this risk, Putin bears the blame for the disaster, in that he created the setting that made it possible. He contrived the separatist rebellion, and he converted eastern Ukraine into the sort of battlefield where these things happen. That would be the case, even if his men didn't then directly cause the shoot-down to happen.

In other words, from a policy angle, the significance of the downed aircraft is that it reveals Russia as not merely a supplier but a combatant on the side of the separatists — and thus in violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. [my emphasis]
Putin is responsible, in Kaplan's telling, because "his officers are directly responsible, either by training the separatist shooters or by being the shooters themselves."

I realize that much of international relations is based on the principle of doing unto other what you would not want them to do to you (but they are also doing or trying to do). And hypocrisy is a more integral part of international politics than domestic.

But this should be something policymakers, Members of Congress and the voters keep in mind when considering those clover covert interventions. Arming rebel groups involves real risk. It isn't like balancing weights on a scale or a see-saw. The rebels can and often do take actions their sponsors would have preferred they avoid.

And if training rebels makes the state providing the training fully responsible for their bad acts like Kaplan is arguing here for Russia, well, Americans should really give up the whiny question, "Why do they hate us?" The US military and intelligence agencies provide various kinds of training for military forces around the world. For that matter, so do US weapons manufacturers and mercenary companies. Even a thick coating of hypocrisy and cynicism should make us cautious about pinning direct blame on the Russian government for acts of rebel forces they sponsor.

Politics is politics, as a famous Georgian political leader once said (Joe Stalin not long before he signed the "Hitler-Stalin Pact," aka, the German-Soviet Nonagression Pact).

But some definition caution is called for here, especially since Russian has a strong perceived national security interest in the area and the US and NATO have none to speak of even irritating Russia.

And according the the AP report by Ken Dilanian, U.S. Officials: No Evidence Of Direct Russian Link To Malaysia Plane Crash Huffington Post 07/22/2014, the Obama Administration does seem to be using some caution in pinning blame, at the same time they are trying to blame the Russians.

Jim White has a real point in Kerry Castigates Putin For Using US Strategy of Training, Arming Rebels Emptywheel 07/21/2014:

... there is reason for optimism among those of us who favor diplomacy over violence in the successful removal and ongoing destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons rather than the missile strikes the US had been planning and in the remaining strong possibility of a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear technology issue instead of a war to destroy the technology. I illustrated that point by mentioning the tragic downing of MH17 and how that demonstrated the folly of training and arming rebel groups that often veer into extremist actions that result in atrocities. That point ties to the mad push to arm Syria’s rebels with the shorter range MANPAD antiaircraft missiles even though they are less powerful than the Buk missile that took down MH17. As I noted, will Syrian “moderates” promise us never to take the MANPADS to a site where civilian aircraft are within range, and would there be any reason to believe such a promise?

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