It all started with Russia-backed Donbass insurgents who fight against the Kiev government in the east of Ukraine celebrating the downing of what they thought was a large cargo plane used to transport troops and weapons by the Ukrainian army. But when it turned out to be a Malaysian airliner with 295 passengers on board flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, they went into denial.
A post written on behalf of the chief separatist military commander Igor Girkin referred to the plane as a “birdie” that “fell behind a pit heap”. It was later removed. Instead a note emerged saying that Girkin had nothing to do with the erroneous announcement. A day later, the commander came up with a completely bizarre conspiracy theory, claiming that the plane was stuffed with dead bodies before it took off. To back it, Russian online media started churning out tonnes of “evidence” including neatly perforated passports, which – the separatists claimed – had been shot through by bullets.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin official suggested the plane had been brought down by the Ukrainian Buk ground-to-air missile system. As with all other theories, this one should be investigated, even though it sounds less plausible considering the separatists’ clumsy disclaimers. Back in 2001, a stray Ukrainian missile shot during a naval exercise hit a Russian airliner, killing all passengers on board.
The Ukrainian army fighting against a Russia-backed insurgency in the east is a ragtag force comprised of poorly trained and equipped troops in conjunction with many semi-autonomous paramilitary battalions that often act under their own accords.
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Given its sorry state and total unpreparedness for a war with Russia, the Ukrainian is entirely capable of unintentionally causing all sorts of tragic incidents.
However, it has shown a remarkable restraint throughout these several months of hostilities. Besides, why would the Ukranians target any plane given that the separatists have no air force of their own?
No matter who downed the plane, there is a much more prominent cause of the tragedy than a missile mistakenly or intentionally fired.
This war would have never happened had the Kremlin refrained from punishing Ukraine for the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovich after months of a bloody standoff between pro-democracy protesters and riot police in Kiev last winter.
There was no pro-Russian movement to speak about in Crimea and southeast Ukraine up until March this year. There was nothing like massive Albanian demonstrations in the Yugoslav-controlled Pristina, no history of national uprisings as in Poland or sectarian violence as in Northern Ireland, no singing revolution as in Estonia. There were no liberation leaders like Ibrahim Rugova or Dzhokhar Dudayev.
Politicians who proclaimed the creation of Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” are nobodies who emerged from nowhere – a soap factory owner, a financial pyramid scheme operative and a Santa impersonator with links to an openly fascist Russian movement. They were eventually elbowed out by Russian nationals with no links to eastern Ukraine whatsoever.
Igor Girkin, the person who is touted by Russian media as the military chief of the uprising, has lived all his life in Moscow and claims to be a retired colonel of the Russian security service, the FSB. The core of his army comprises of military units from Russia proper as well as former Ukrainian special troopers and riot policemen who took part in the standoff with anti-government protesters that led to bloodshed in Kiev.
Many of them hail from the Russian-occupied Crimea. Local recruits may be often traced to organised crime groups that reined the area in the 1990s and became the power base of the recently ousted president Yanukovich.
Known for its near-suicidal political passivity, the local population by and large stays neutral, which has prompted Girkin to complain about their lack of enthusiasm for the uprising on several occasions.
This war is a massive act of sabotage masquerading as a popular uprising. It is not so much about Ukraine leaning towards the West and Russia trying to pull it in a different direction. It is about the Mafia state – a brutal kleptocracy that replaced the Communist system in the ex-USSR – resisting the transition towards greater transparency and the rule of law.
The aim of this war is to punish Ukrainians for toppling Yanukovich and to prevent Ukraine from becoming a positive alternative to kleptocratic regimes, such as Putin’s. The West’s support of Ukraine’s struggle has so far been largely nominal, if not imitational. But now that missiles fired in Donbass are hitting homes as far as Holland and Canada, Western leaders may choose to think again.
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.
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