Loose Canons

Death on Putin’s Playground

‘Investigation’ can't reveal what we already know.

By 7.21.14

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Most of the news coverage of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 has been ridiculous if not positively annoying. For days, we’ve been bored by breathless reports of “black boxes” gone missing, the accident scene “contaminated,” moved bodies, and calls for independent international investigations.

Now that BFFs John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have agreed that there needs to be — according to a Russian Foreign Ministry announcement — “an absolutely unbiased, independent and open international investigation” into the “crash” of the Malaysian airliner, we are apparently being told to relax because the “crash” is in safe hands.

What absolute nonsense. It wasn’t a crash: Russian separatists shot the airliner down with one or more Russian SA-11 “Buk” surface to air missiles. Our reconnaissance satellites would have, within seconds, detected the missile launch and pinpointed the spot of the launch to within a few dozen yards. If mobile surface-to-air missile batteries had license plates, some of our satellites would have been able to read them. We know from that information, with about 99% certainty, who launched it: the Russian-backed insurgents fighting to dominate Ukraine. The launch was performed with or without the assistance of Russian military trainers. (There’s a recording of a conversation between the local commanders — which may or may not be authentic and could have been staged for listeners — indicating confusion as to the identity of the target aircraft.)

The aircraft’s flight data recorders (the “black boxes” in reporter-speak) won’t tell us why the missile(s) were launched, how many were launched, or what the missile battery crew knew or intended when they launched it. We know that it was no accidental launch. The wreckage of the aircraft, the bodies of the victims, or anything else on the ground won’t tell us anything of value.

We won’t learn from any investigation whether the Russian surrogates intended to shoot down a civilian airliner or thought they were shooting at a Ukrainian military cargo aircraft. That will never be discovered because the people who fired the missile or missiles will never be reliably identified or charged with a crime in any court. Some of the missile batteries — and we don’t know if the Russian separatists have three or three dozen of them — have apparently been moved back toward or across Ukraine’s border with Russia.

Once again, the Obama administration is content to bury an incident with a pointless and never-ending investigation. These investigations are a delaying tactic, a substitute for action. At this point, we know all we need to know. Some European governments — Britain and the Netherlands — are calling for the European Union to “review” its relationship with Russia as a result of the shoot-down. The EUnuchs will certainly review their relationship with the supplier of about one-third of their natural gas and decide that things are just hunky-dory. They will tut-tut at Putin and President Obama may impose more of the sanctions he’s already imposed on Russian businesses and some of Putin’s pals. But nothing will be done that will result in any change to what Putin is doing on his Ukrainian playground.

There are some who believe that we should respond with military action against the Russian separatist/surrogate forces, such as striking the SAM batteries in the territory they hold. Needless to say, Obama will do nothing like that because he is incapable of decisive action. But regardless of Obama’s principal deficiencies, that should not happen.

The simple reason is that no vital national security interest of the United States is at stake.

If it had been an American airliner shot down — as this one was in well-traveled international airspace — the shoot-down would have been intentionally or unintentionally an act of war against the U.S. and a direct threat to our freedom of the skies. In that case we should take military action against the forces that committed the act. We have a rather awesome array of stealthy weapon systems that could destroy the SAM batteries regardless of their mobility.

But his wasn’t an American aircraft: it was Malaysian. Malaysia is incapable of responding militarily, and it isn’t up to us to keep the skies open for every civilian aircraft everywhere. This simply isn’t our fight.

In his Friday remarks, Obama said that there must be a cease-fire between the Ukrainians and the Russian separatists. He also said that if Putin wanted to end the flow of men, funds and military hardware to the separatists, it would happen. But Putin doesn’t want to do that and nothing we are saying or doing will impede him.

And that’s the point. Putin chose Ukraine as his playground because it is weak militarily and because its border with Russia is a convenient path for aggression. Putin’s principal naval base is at Sevastopol in the Crimea, which Putin has already annexed. Having a land bridge to the Crimea is a major benefit to Putin’s ability to project Russian power throughout the region.

Obama can be counted on to do nothing more than pose, his economic sanctions mere diplomatic flatulence. Despite Obama and Hillary’s risible “reset” of relations with Russia, there is obviously no U.S. national strategy to contain or respond to Putin in any part of the world.

There are things we can and should do, and they don’t involve military action against the Russian surrogates.

One thing we should do is offer to give or sell (lend-lease?) fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian government. That will take time. Aircraft may already be available — recent vintage F-16s or even F-15s — but Ukrainian pilots would have to be brought to this country for many months of training. Other arms can and training should be provided as well. The benefit of doing this would be to show Putin that his imperial ambitions toward Ukraine will be nullified with our help because we stand for freedom and oppose Putin’s neo-Soviet ambitions.

The neo-Soviet Putin is engaged in an old strategy of injecting Russian influence not only in Ukraine but wherever Russian interests can be pursued, a category of matters that includes wherever American interests can be threatened.

Putin is now threatening to interfere in Obama’s attempt to negotiate a long-term nuclear weapons treaty with Iran. That, of course, leaves Iran in control of its nuclear weapons programs. Talks on that agreement have been stalled by Iranian demands over its nuclear enrichment program and the question of inspection of its heavy water plant in Arak and hitherto secret nuclear facilities near Qom.

Obama and Kerry are sufficiently desperate to get a deal that they are giving Iran at least four more months to negotiate. Which, of course, gives Putin more time to interfere. Given Russia’s veto on the UN Security Council, there will be no further sanctions on Iran, not even the renewal of older sanctions that have been given up in pursuit of the nuclear deal.

We have no national military strategy, far less one that has decided what to do with Putin now that the “reset” of relations with Russia has so thoroughly failed. If grownups were in charge of our foreign and defense policies, we would have a strategy and a plan to implement it. But we don’t. Putin’s new Cold War deserves a return to a policy of containment. What he is getting instead is a policy vacuum that he is eager to fill.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.