“[The separatists are] a motley crew of lunatics, wanna-be adventurers, self-obsessed power megalomaniacs with a sprinkling of Russian intelligence and professional mercenaries on top.”
This afternoon a Malaysian Boeing 777 crashed near the Ukrainian/Russian border, killing all of its 280 passengers, including 80 children, and 15 crew members. Within a few hours the overwhelming evidence is pointing to the separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine. The rebels boasted on vkontakte, a Russian version of Facebook, and on Twitter about the capture of an anti-missile system Buk from the Ukrainian Army and the fact that they had downed an aircraft. Most damagingly, however, is the transcript of a telephone conversation by Ukrainian security forces, in which rebels report back to Russian (!) military headquarters that they downed a plane. In a subsequent call the rebels seem to realize their mistake upon inspection of the crash site. They report that they see no weapons and that the plane is 100% civilian. They even pick up the ID of a Malaysian student, hence making any doubt about which plane they are inspecting superfluous. This has not stopped Alexander Borodaj, self-proclaimed leader of the Lugansk People’s Republic, from blaming Ukrainian forces for the catastrophic error. Yet the track record of the rebels speaks for itself. They have also downed at least two Ukrainian military aircraft in the last week, while the Ukrainian army has not used surface-to-air weaponry so far. A more complicated question is to what extent the separatists are still under the control of anyone. The phone call to Moscow seems to suggest that they are taking orders from Russia, but there has also been a growing sense of dissatisfaction among the separatist leaders with what has been described as lack of support from Putin. The unit identified as having fired the deadly missile in the phone conversation was a pro-Russian Cossack unit, stationed at a minor checkpoint. At the very least chaos reigns, if such powerful weaponry is left with people who were clearly not trained to use it.
What will happen now is an even harder question. The EU and US have just imposed newer and harsher sanctions, which included businesses as well as individuals. Yet they now seem to be like out of a different era. Also the appeal for three-sided negotiations issued less than a week ago will probably not be repeated. While few will argue that the separatists meant to down a civilian airliner, they have been shown to the world what many who have had dealings with them already knew: they are made up of a motley crew of lunatics, wanna-be adventurers, self-obsessed power megalomaniacs with a sprinkling of Russian intelligence and professional mercenaries on top. And they have got some very dangerous weapons in their hands – whether captured or imported from Russia. The West is not likely to do anything much in the next few days. It will hide behind the need to investigate and consult with each other. The much more interesting side to watch is Russia. This has been a major embarrassment for Russia in general and for Putin in particular. Russia will deny all responsibility, but behind the scenes heads will certainly roll – and they are most likely to belong to some of the separatist leaders. Then Russia has two choices: to leave the Eastern Ukrainian battlefield for the time being in order to save face or bring order into the whole operation by substituting the chaotic existing forces with regular Russian Army. Some report that ‘little green men’, who have been so instrumental in securing Crimea for Russia, have already crossed into the territory. However, whatever turn events will take, the separatists have shot themselves out of the backwaters of Eastern Ukraine and into a limelight that is almost certainly too bright for them.