The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the MH-17 tragedy won’t moderate the Russia-Ukraine conflict

A part of the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane is seen after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev
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The following is a guest post by University of California Riverside political scientist and Provost Paul D’Anieri.


Some have expressed hope that the tragic downing of MH-17 might foster a resolution (or at least a moderation) of the conflict in Ukraine. The reasoning is simple: International actors, outraged by the incident, will add pressure to both sides to bring the conflict to an end. In particular, the costs of a continued campaign will mount on Vladimir Putin. David Ignatius, writing in the PostPartisan blog on July 17, captured the theme: “This nightmare incident could have a perverse benefit, if it leads Russia to reconsider the consequences of its reckless campaign in Ukraine.”

Unfortunately, there are more compelling reasons to believe that the conflict will continue unabated, or even intensified. Control of the territory is still at stake, and that will be determined on the ground, by the use of force.

Putin supports a cease-fire, as he has all along, because that leaves the Russian-sponsored forces in control of Ukrainian territory, a status quo that suits Russian interests. This is precisely why the Ukrainian authorities originally ended the cease-fire, and why they have continued operations even after the downing of the aircraft. They suspect that the longer the territory remains in Russian hands, the more likely it is that it will never be returned.

To see why a cease-fire works to Russia’s advantage, the Ukrainian leadership need only look to Ukraine’s western border, where a slice of its neighbor Moldova known as Transnistria has been occupied by pro-Russian forces since 1992. The conflict began when a group that did not want Moldova to secede from the Soviet Union took up arms, with extensive support from the Soviet/Russian military. A cease-fire was declared in July 1992, and the conflict has remained “frozen” ever since.

The Ukrainians can also look to Azerbaijan, where the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has been occupied by Armenia—with support from Russia—for nearly the same period, again after a conflict and cease-fire. Or it can look to Georgia, where a similar practice was followed, until Russia actually invaded, detaching Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008.

Indeed, what is happening in Eastern Ukraine seems not to be a one-off conflict, but rather the most recent in a series of moves by Russia to exploit local tensions and seize bordering territory.  The downing of a civilian airliner was madness, but there is method in everything else that Russia has done in Eastern Ukraine.

Of course, the Ukrainians can also look at their own experience with Crimea, where the international community briefly registered outrage at its annexation before returning to business as usual. Russia has spent considerable time and resources building its influence in Europe and in Washington, and it understands how to wield it. While the Dutch and British governments have been vocal in their outrage over the incident, other European leaders have been quieter, preferring, it seems, to try to preserve a constructive working relationship with Russia. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has been particularly reticent, perhaps because of Germany’s long-standing coziness with Russia, and perhaps because of her outrage at the recent revelations of U.S. spying on Germany.

It is natural to ask what ‘the West’ can do to stop the conflict. Raising the cost for Russia may help to deter future aggression, but an enormous amount of empirical research on sanctions shows that their efficacy is extremely spotty. NATO governments have so far has been unwilling to incur major costs to punish Russia. Russia reads this level of commitment clearly: In response to the sanctions enacted over Crimea, Deputy Prime Ministry Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that “NATO people” should “send me your teeth ground in impotent rage.”

In sum, both the Russian and Ukrainian governments are much more realistic about how this will really play out than are international optimists. The Russians know that holding the territory is key, that they can deflect serious consequences, and the demanding a cease-fire helps them do both. The Ukrainians know that the only way they will get their territory back is to take it by force.


James GoldgeierMH17 is a tragedy, not a game-changer

Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich: Why the Ukraine separatists screwed up

Joshua Rovner: Putin’s Grand Strategy is Failing

Ivan Katchanovski: What do citizens of Ukraine actually think about secession?

Oxana Shevel: Will the Malaysia Airlines tragedy change the trajectory of events in Ukraine?

Austin Long: Was the downing of the Malaysian Air flight accidental?