Let Europe Do the Heavy Political Lift with Putin
“It’d be unwise to say, well, the Russians did it, or the Ukrainian government did it, or the rebels did it.”
That is none other than Ron Paul, the former presidential candidate from Texas, talking to Newsmax TV Friday, hours after the downing of Malaysian Flight MH-17 over Ukraine. “Under these circumstances,” Paul added, “it’s very difficult to get real information, so everybody’s angling to propagandize and make their position known.”
For this moment in the Ukraine crisis, Paul competes as the truth-teller with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Liow Tiong Lai, Malaysia’s transport minister. Both asserted that “a geopolitical issue,” as Liow put it, has to be recognized now as “a human tragedy.”
“Days after the plane went down,” Liow said over the weekend, “the remains of 298 people lie uncovered. Citizens of 11 nations, none of whom are involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, cannot be laid to rest.”
These conditions at the crash site say it all now. The MH-17 tragedy transforms the Ukraine crisis into one that must be taken, decisively and immediately, out of the hands of its two belligerents, the Kiev government and the rebels who oppose them. This means international engagement of a seriousness not yet achieved.
Straight off the top, add the 300 who fell from the sky Thursday to the civilian casualties of the air and ground offensive Kiev launched 10 days ago. The numbers are no longer acceptable as “collateral damage” or any other euphemism deployed to gloss the mounting injustice of this mess.
Equally, the over-the-top propaganda war that is the background music of the Ukraine conflict and an unprecedented feature of this kind of crisis has to be called by its name and stopped. It is less than useless at this early moment to fling assertions of guilt toward the opposing side: Thick and fast as these accusations already come, they are destructive in that they push us further from resolution, not closer.
Ron Paul, whatever one may think of him, is dead right this time: We cannot judge events accurately because too much of them are obscured. Cleaning up the act is the responsibility of three sides.
First conclusion: Vladimir Putin has to come out crystal clear now as to just what Moscow has been doing on the ground in eastern Ukraine. Much as we think we know, in truth we are somewhere between guessing and assuming the worst. The smoldering remains of MH-17 in a Ukrainian wheat field require that Putin state the case forthrightly. This is imperative as a step toward a solution.
Second, the new government in Kiev has to grow up big time. These people are too long on self-serving accusations and way too short on evidence. Their track record more or less disqualifies them as credible sources. So does their incessant use of “terrorists” to describe the eastern rebels, a term intended only to foreclose the obligation to negotiate. In all likelihood, the rebels are the guilty parties in bringing down MH-17. Even when or if this is proven, calling them “terrorists” will obscure more than it reveals.
Finally, the Obama administration has to ’fess up to bring clarity to all questions of motive and intent—who is doing what and why. As argued severally in this space, the honest-broker, defense-of-democracy pose Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and Vice-President Biden insist on striking does not hold up to the record.
“It’s pretty evident that the whole problem in Ukraine started approximately a year ago when the Europeans, along with the United States, overthrew an elected government and overthrew [former Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych — insisting that there’d be civil strife over there,” Paul said in his TV interview. Again, correct.
Once all sides clear the air, a resolution comes into view. Two telephone calls recounted in news reports over the past several days suggest the form this can take.
One was Friday between Obama and Putin. The Russian leader had called to complain about the new sanctions Washington imposed Monday, and the call amounted to an hour’s bickering. Coincidentally, during this exchange Putin briefly paused when he received the first vague word that a plane had gone down over Ukrainian territory.
The second call was the next day and was between Putin and Angela Merkel. The German chancellor was quick and forceful in calling Putin on his assertion that Ukrainian forces were responsible for downing MH-17. This was right. She also asserted that a new ceasefire, making possible an independent investigation into the crash, was the essential next step. In a “very clear call,” she assigned Putin a primary role in bringing this about. This was also right.
Two telephone exchanges, three world leaders, in two days. The conclusions seem obvious. First, furthering the hostilities in this crisis—and sanctions are hostile acts—is not the road to resolution. Once again, Obama comes up unimaginatively on a major foreign policy question.
“These events have once again shown us that what is required is a political solution,” Merkel said at a news conference after her talk with Putin, “and above all that it is also Russia that is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine at the moment.” The chancellor is right a third time.
Second conclusion: MH-17 appears to have shifted the center of gravity in the East-West faceoff Ukraine has become. If there is a wise way forward—and there is, in my view—it lies between the Christian Democratic conservative who began life in the former East Germany and the Russian nationalist who served in Germany and knows it well.
One begins to fear that the man who launched the fatal, fateful missile last Thursday will turn out to be the double of Gavrilo Princip, Archduke Ferdinand’s assassin. A century after the spark that ignited the First World War, we do not want remotely to go near the start of a third.