“War is an instrument entirely inefficient toward redressing wrong; and multiplies, instead of indemnifying losses.” So said Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. That was certainly true of the Great War that began one hundred years ago. And perhaps some are now wondering whether the shooting down over Ukraine last Thursday of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 might not itself have the potential to be a Sarajevo moment that ignites a new conflict.
Speaking at the annual ambassadors’ conference in Warsaw which reviews the current state of Polish foreign policy, President Komorowski described the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 – apparently by pro-Russian separatist forces – as an “unbelievable and shameful act which is an act of terror.” According to President Komorowski although the political and legal wheels have to be put into motion fully to investigate the crime, it is today easy to point who is responsible for this “unsightly drama”: Russia.
“A spectacle has come about before our very eyes, which must form our opinion on the state of global, regional, European and Polish security,” Komorowski said. “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has been confirmed by the simple exchanges of ‘little green men’ with regular Russian soldiers, as well as the annexation of a considerable part of Ukrainian territory and organisation of separatist forces.” But, President Komorowski stated, “One incident has touched the whole world, however: the tragedy of the Malaysian plane which was shot down,” killing all 298 people on board.
A tragedy which the Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, thinks, as could the Ukrainian crisis as whole, been prevented had Europe taken a more concerted stance against Russia. In an interview with German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Sikorski said he had warned about the increased missile capabilities of the pro-Russian separatists, following his trip to Kiev last Tuesday. “Europe did too little to make an impact on Russia’s conduct at the various stages of the conflict,” and when Russia imposed a trade boycott on Ukraine last year to punish it for the pro-European course it was taking, he had pleaded with his colleagues to take action. Sikorski said that “if we had shown Moscow the limits then, and demonstrated our solidarity with Ukraine, this escalation would probably not have happened.”
Be that as it may, I suspect that even Putin did not imagine that the thugs in eastern Ukraine would start shooting down commercial airliners, although he should have been a little more careful to whom he entrusted advanced missiles. At the very least, if not personally culpable he has certainly been negligent and the lack of cooperation at the crash site since the accident only adds to the suspicion of Russian motives. But what to do?
First, send a strong message to Russia that since its stooges have now managed to murder the nationals of a number of NATO and other countries, the problem may no longer simply be brushed aside by Russia as a little local difficulty involving a few Russians separatists and that we are no longer prepared to tolerate the continuing rebellion in eastern Ukraine. Second, tell Russia that we expect it to call off the separatists, to hand over those responsible for the missile attack to the Ukrainian authorities and to allow the Ukrainian government to restore order in eastern Ukraine. If Russia maintains that the separatists are nothing to do with it, then we should simply tell the Russians to stand aside to allow the Ukrainian forces tidy the mess up. Third, tell Russia that while we have no desire for conflict, settling grievances – supposed or real – by annexation is simply not acceptable. With or without Russia’s cooperation the mess will be cleared up. Fourth, show some resolve and that we are serious by immediately increasing defence spending while at the same time trying to bring Russia back into the European family through constructive dialogue. Russia is a big country and requires be treated as one. It cannot, or should not, be beyond the wit of our politicians to find a solution which allows Russia to back down without having been seen thereby to have lost honour. Galling, perhaps; necessary, certainly.
So, a Sarejevo moment? No, not this time. Rather an opportunity to correct some mistakes and make true the words of Jefferson: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”