The president of the United States has spoken. And to anyone paying even half-attention to what he said the message was unambiguous: Russia is responsible for the downing of the MH17 because the missile that downed the commercial airliner was fired from the territory controlled by Russia-led and Russia-armed “rebels.”
The exact nature of Russia’s responsibility – who gave the order to shoot and who pushed the button and why – may never be known. But it does not matter much. It is clear that, desperate to reverse the battlefield dynamics, Russia has been sending increasingly heavy and sophisticated equipment across the border, including tanks, armored personal carriers and BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket systems. The latter was reportedly deployed last week against a Ukrainian border checkpoint in the Luhansk Oblast, killing up to 30 and wounding nearly 100 Ukrainian soldiers. It now seems that at least one “Buk,” or SA-11 “Gadfly,” surface-to-air missile system, most likely the weapon used to bring down flight MH17, was among the equipment that Russia sent into Ukraine.
While the US is letting the “international community” uncover the details, it is very likely that—in preparation for, say, a UN commission’s conclusive statement of Russia’s culpability—US and European leaders are already discussing a new set of sanctions to be announced when the international outrage reaches an apogee. These are likely to be the truly painful measures that might include, for instance, banning all Russian financial institutions from international financial markets and also embargoes on investment in and transfer of technology to the mainstay of the Putin regime, Russian oil and gas industry.
So what will Putin do? After half a year of deafening war-mongering propaganda, the rebel’s defeat would be an enormous blow to the regime. Facing very bleak economic prospects and until recently widely despised and mistrusted by the population, the Kremlin has boosted its legitimacy by a foreign policy that taps into the longing for the lost superpower imperial glory of the Soviet Union. Therefore, retreat is not an option.
After new sanctions are imposed, Putin may very well decide that having paid the price he might as well double down by sending regular troops to save his proxies and help them hold Luhansk and Donetsk.
Or, and this is likely to be the preferred option, he will try to have his cake and eat it too: by saving face inside Russia and also avoiding further isolation abroad by “freezing” the conflict. In this scenario, Moscow would call for immediate cessation of hostilities, a ceasefire, and an international “peace conference” that would include the EU, US, Russia, the “self-defense forces” and Ukraine. In the meantime – and it could be a very, very long time – the rebels will remain in control of the territories they hold today.
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