MH17: Shooting Downs Hope for Separatist Independence in Ukraine

Until this past week, Western sanctions against Russia and Ukrainian separatists were largely symbolic. No one wanted an escalation, and from the lukewarm nature of the western response, the United States and Western Europe did not believe that the Russian-backed separatist violence warranted serious intervention.

Fastforward a week. The separatist rebellion in Eastern Ukraine looks to be on its last legs. Ukrainian forces have slowly converged on separatist strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk, cutting off separatist supply lines. Political leadership in the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy have just coordinated a powerful wave of sanctions that will seriously inhibit Russian economic activity by placing an embargo on state banks and technology exports. These sanctions significantly compromise Russia’s oil and military industries, reflecting an aggressive policy measure aimed at deterring Russian military support for their co-ethnic Ukrainian separatists.

What spurred this change Western activism?British Prime Minister David Cameron’s press release following the sanctions meeting provides some valuable insight into the catalyst. Rather than defend the sanctions by decrying the threat to Ukrainian sovereignty, Cameron identifies the shooting of Malaysian Flight MH17 as the impetus for heightened Western involvement. As Cameron says, “The latest information from the region suggests that even since MH17 was shot down, Russia continues to transfer weapons across the border and to provide practical support to the separatists…Leaders agreed that the international community should therefore impose further costs on Russia.”

Along similar lines, the Obama defended the newest round of sanctions as a response to the “wake-up call” sent by the shooting of MH17.

The clear question: why has the MH17 shoot-down galvanized the West to action?

Some have answered that the sanctions are the result of popular political pressure from Western European countries, who have been drawn to the conflict by the high number of European passengers shot down. This holds particularly true for the Netherlands, who lost 193 citizens as a result of the attack. This theory seems partially supported by the evidence. Reuters reports that “an opinion poll showed an overwhelming majority of the Dutch want sanctions imposed on Moscow, even if it hurts their own economy.”

However, this does not explain the full story. Even if the deaths of Dutch civilians justified an escalation on behalf of the Netherlands, larger countries such as the United States, while sympathetic, have powerful reasons for avoiding an escalation of tensions with Russia. In particular, powerful Western states realize that adopting substantive sanctions against Russia internationalizes the conflict from internal sovereign struggles within another post-Soviet state to a clash between world powers that some have characterized as the resurgence of a new Cold War. While the Cold War characterization is clearly hyperbolic (at the most basic level, Russia does not have the economic nor military infrastructure to engage the West head on), antagonizing Russia still has serious consequences for international stability. Russia has numerous leverage points throughout the region (such as its ability to inflame conflicts in Azerbaijan or Moldova) and would also encourage a stronger Russian hand to counter Western interests in the Middle East. Furthermore, the West (and the United States in particular) needs Russia on board to keep Iran at the negotiating table over nuclear disarmament.

Given all of these reasons to avoid escalation, the tragic deaths of a few hundred airline passengers in a mistaken rebel strike does not seem to outweigh the costs of challenging Russia’s quiet military support for Ukrainian separatists and risking an outbreak of conflict and expanding international instability.

However, I would argue that newest round of sanctions, in response to the MH17 crash, were motivated by concerns for stability that compelled the Western states to act despite all of the associated risks.

The targeting of MH17 sent an unambiguous signal to the international community: the Ukrainian separatists do not exercise sufficient control to be considered a legitimate actor in the international community. One of the primary objectives for many Great Powers in the international community is to maintain the current international system, and these Powers protect the safety of the current system by coordinating mutually agreed-upon rules and principles followed by all legitimate actors.[1] This system of mutual coordination plays a critical role in perpetuating the current distribution of power and maintaining a stable systemic paradigm. For example, members of the international community expect groups to refrain from adopting behaviors that may potentially trigger wide-scale international conflict and destabilize the current international order. Destroying a civilian aircraft with no ties to the conflict clearly constitutes an act that poses a danger to the safety of the international community at large. Moreover, the destruction of the airplane poses a serious coordination problem for the international community—international aviation depends upon the assumption that, short of a relationship to a specific military conflict, commercial aircraft can fly over countries without fear of harm or undue hardship.

By shooting down MH17, the Ukrainian separatists demonstrated that they either  lack the will or capability to abide by the principles underwriting international security such as the guarantee of safe civilian travel. Either way, from the perspective of the international community (and the Western states), by shooting down MH17, these separatist actors violated the ‘rules’ governing acceptable international behavior and inherently challenge international stability. Since the separatists challenge the norms safeguarding international stability, the these separatists cannot be legitimate players in the current international system.

Since Russia has been supporting the Ukrainian separatists, Russia receives the ire of the Western world for ostensibly undermining the mutually maintained international order. The West also knows that as a general rule, Russia is a strong proponent of supporting the stability of the current international system—a system that gives the former Soviet state disproportionate influence in international affairs. Therefore, Russia, like the Western states, was undoubtedly furious over the separatists’ (likely accidental) targeting of the civilian aircraft. However, the political reality makes abandonment of the Russian separatists extremely costly, thus placing Russian leadership in deep bind.

On the one hand, Russia has a compelling interest in maintaining international order. The Russians know very well that the West is right to respond strongly to the breach in international order. In circumstances outside of the immediate post-Soviet sphere, Russia tends to be one of the strongest voices for reinforcing sovereign rights and interstate peace.

On the other hand, however, Russia also feels required to maintain a strong front against the West. Putin’s Russia made great strides forward in its power projection abilities over the past several months. Through actions like defying the United States and granting Edward Snowden asylum, intervening and averting a Western invasion of Syria over chemical weapons, and ignoring the wishes of the international community and annexing Crimea, Russia has signaled to the international community that it is a power to be reckoned with. More importantly, however, Russia has also signaled to its immediate neighbors in the post-Soviet sphere that it is both willing and able to take punitive action if any of the post-Soviet states (excluding the Baltic countries) go too far in contravening Russian interests. This power projection is especially relevant when keeping potentially problematic states in check. For example, Georgia and Moldova, who along with Ukraine recently signed Free Trade Agreements with the European Union, have proceeded extremely cautiously for fear of Russian retaliation.

Russia believes that if they are seen to back down beneath Western pressure, Russia will lose much of the influence it has recently reacquired. Moreover, Putin has to consider political ramifications back at home. Russia’s stated protection of ethnic Russian kin and heavy footprint on the world stage has led to a resurgence of Russian nationalism and strong domestic political support. Bowing to Western pressure would humiliate Putin and shame the Russian nationalists. However, the West is also aware of Russia’s shaky economic foundation, and a collapse of the strained Russian economy under Western sanctions would be equally effective in undermining Putin’s domestic political support.

In Putin’s perfect world, the Russians would ‘broker’ an agreement between the pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government that would reestablish peace in Eastern Ukraine under a watchful Russian eye. Russia wants an agreement where the separatists gain partial autonomy under a greater sovereign Ukrainian state. The establishment of a partially autonomous region would give Russia a powerful leveraging piece to ensure Ukrainian respect for Russian interests—if Ukraine ever challenged vial Russian interests, Russia would be able to “activate” Eastern Ukraine and threaten an outbreak of secession in Eastern Ukraine unless the Ukrainian government acceded to Russian demands.

From the Western perspective, a stable Ukraine with semi-autonomous Eastern provinces is not an ideal arrangement, but an acceptable one. The West does not want to give Russia such a powerful bargaining chip through which they can exercise substantial control over Ukrainian national policies, but the West would accept it, a fact that Putin is betting on. However, the West would much prefer an independent Ukraine able to more fully join the Western community, and knows the risks that Putin is taking by refusing to back down.

So really, the crux of what we are currently seeing play out is not the Ukrainian separatists’ rebellion—their independence is no longer a realistic outcome. Rather, the major dynamic is the tacit negotiation between the West and Russia over the future role and influence that Russia will have in Ukraine.

Both sides need to convince the other that they are committed to their position, and that they are not willing to accept the consequences of backing down. For Putin, this means that he must credibly convey that he absolutely cannot accept a Ukraine entirely free of Russian influence, and the West must convince Putin that they are willing to do whatever it takes to keep Russia out.

This environment has fostered a game of brinksmanship, where each side takes risky steps to convince the other to convey their conviction and that they are not bluffing. The joint announcement of sanctions between the U.S., France, Britain, Germany and Italy aimed to achieve this very purpose. The Western powers sought to show their commitment through their coordination—that all the parties were on the same page and had fully agreed to stopping Russia with heavy sanctions, regardless of the cost to their own economies.

Russia, on the other hand, has taken measures of its own. The Russians have continued to amass troops on their Western border, not only a costly measure in order to maintain the 12,000 troops on Ukrainian border, but also a decision that gives Russia the leeway to move its troops into Ukraine at any given time.

In short, despite the current tensions, both parties want a negotiated settlement to the Ukrainian conflict. Despite the Russian posturing, the Ukrainian separatist conflict is in its final stages—the MH17 incident proved the separatists to be an illegitimate group threatening international security. The real question left on the table is whether the Western states or Russia will be the first to blink in their game of brinksmanship, deteriming how much leverage Russia will have over the future Ukrainian state.


[1] For more information on Great Power coordination, see Coggins, Bridget. “Friends in high places: international politics and the emergence of states from secessionism.” International Organization 65.03 (2011): 433-467.





About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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