After MH17, the Real Problem Remains War in Eastern Ukraine

July 26, 2014
Washington must stop insisting on a military solution
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

Within hours, perhaps minutes, of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Donetsk oblast, western commentators broke into chorus that the catastrophe would be a “game-changer.” (Evidently the first to use the phrase was Julia Ioffe of the New Republic, but the phrase immediately became ubiquitous.)

One week later, it is not clear that MH17 was so much a game-changer (to start with, this is not a game) but an intensifier. All parties within Ukraine and outside have simply increased the volume of their stock charges and counter-charges, adding to them their denials of responsibility for the terrible fate of the airplane’s passengers and accusations of the culpability of their opponents. As the hard work of what looks to be a protracted investigation of the crash begins, it seems little has changed in the overall picture.

Putting aside the increasingly shrill invective, the same dilemma that faced Ukraine remains now: will the violence in the country’s east be solved by a halt in hostilities, negotiation, compromise, and a political settlement that seeks to repair Ukraine’s ever slimmer prospects for unity; or will Kiev try to “solve” it by conquest of the east and repression of the locals by a “National Guard” that includes undisguised “social-national” radicals?

As of this writing, it seems the second – a military solution – is the only one Kiev is willing to contemplate. Whether it now has any better chance of success than before July 17 is an open question. Kiev seems at least to be making headway in killing civilians [WARNING: graphic footage], of which even western observers are beginning to take note. For example, yesterday (July 24) Human Rights Watch reported:

(Donetsk) – Unguided Grad rockets launched apparently by Ukrainian government forces and pro-government militias have killed at least 16 civilians and wounded many more in insurgent-controlled areas of Donetsk and its suburbs in at least four attacks between July 12 and 21, 2014, Human Rights Watch said today.

The use of indiscriminate rockets in populated areas violates international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, and may amount to war crimes. [ . .. . ]

“Grad rockets are notoriously imprecise weapons that shouldn’t be used in populated areas,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If insurgent and Ukrainian government forces are serious about limiting harm to civilians, they should both immediately stop using these weapons in populated areas.”

[“Ukraine: Unguided Rockets Killing Civilians: Stop Use of Grads in Populated Areas”]

There is no evidence Kiev is reining in the use of Grads in civilian areas, as well as use of air power and artillery against anti-Kiev fighters it calls “terrorists.” The anti-Kiev forces respond by shooting down more of Kiev’s military aircraft. The crisis grinds on.

Keep in mind that on June 30, Petro Poroshenko, who had been installed as president only a few days before, brushed off pleas from Paris, Berlin, and Moscow to extend his June 20 ceasefire and resumed an offensive to rid the east of people he called “dirt and parasites.” He now has called for the Donetsk and Lugansk republics to be declared “terrorist organizations,” slamming the door on a negotiated peace and “justifying” further harsh measures.

It is unlikely Poroshenko would be taking this path without support from Washington, not to mention pressure from radicals in his own camp. It is noteworthy that in his remarks on July 22 – after the MH17 downing – U.S. President Barack Obama called for a ceasefire in Gaza but not for a ceasefire in Ukraine.

To put it another way, with U.S. backing Kiev remains focused on an exclusively military “solution” to what is essentially a political problem. The only certain result will be Kiev’s intended carnage in the eastern regions, with – it is hoped – a reduced risk of presumably unintended collateral damage to outsiders. (Thankfully, civil air traffic has been routed away from the region, raising the question of why that hadn’t been done earlier by Ukrainian aviation control, in keeping with the prudent judgment of other airlines for several months).

What’s left of Ukraine’s political order continues to deteriorate. Even with any and all available resources being poured into the offensive against Ukraine’s easterners, Kiev is “hitting the wall.” As acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stated to the Rada on submission of his resignation yesterday, after UDAR and the extremist Svoboda party withdrew their support:

“The coalition has fallen apart, laws haven’t been voted on, soldiers can’t be paid, there’s no money to buy rifles, there’s no possibility to store up gas,” Yatsenyuk told lawmakers. “What options do we have now?”

Meanwhile, the alternative solution stares everyone in the face: a comprehensive ceasefire, genuine negotiations, and a balanced settlement that addresses Ukraine’s real needs. Such an approach would command wide European – and especially German – support. As stated by Columbia University’s Robert Legvold:

The other alternative has greater currency in Europe. Its most potent advocate is Angela Merkel, and while she and others are being pulled by events inexorably toward more punitive measures, her central focus is on ending the military conflict and launching negotiations aimed at a broader political settlement. Russia is a key, but scarcely an exclusive, target. Her emphasis is on all—the contact group and Kyiv as well as the separatists and Russia. All are called upon to do their part.

For Kyiv this means much more than President Poroshenko’s fifteen-point plan for peace in the east and much more than his sketch of reforms promising more autonomy to Ukraine’s eastern regions and language protection to Russian speakers. It means accepting that a military solution does not have European support and that Kyiv’s part in a political dialogue must be flexible and genuinely open to meeting the concerns of the majorities in all of Ukraine’s eight eastern provinces. For the contact group, it means more than convening peace talks, even if without preconditions. It means knocking heads to ensure that parties who despise one another and see compromise only on their terms as acceptable are forced to seek common ground. And, in reverse of the usual challenge of getting the Europeans to follow the United States’ tougher approach, it means getting the United States to invest more effort in drawing all parties toward a political settlement.

The question is: how to convince Washington a “course correction” is needed?