In the early hours of July 17, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 with 298 people on board was shot down over eastern Ukraine, now controlled by Russian separatists engaged in a civil war against the Kiev government. The Russian-speaking minority has evidently been reinforced and equipped by kinsmen from across the Russia-Ukraine border. They carry heavy firepower including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and a range of surface to air missiles.

The shooting down of MH17 came alongside rebel missile attacks over the past four weeks, which have downed two military transport and three state of the art Sukhoi attack aircraft of the Ukrainian Air Force. It is evident that the attack was based on the mistaken assumption that it was a Ukrainian Air Force aircraft.

There have been seven incidents of inadvertent shooting down of civilian aircraft in the past. In 1983, the South Korean Airlines Flight 007 with 277 passengers and crew strayed into Soviet airspace. It was shot down by a missile fired from a Soviet MiG, 269 people died. After the usual rhetoric, the former US president Ronald Reagan and the president of the erstwhile USSR Mikhail Gorbachev returned to business as usual.

On July 3, 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 flying from Tehran to Dubai with 290 passengers, mostly pilgrims headed for Mecca, was shot down over Iranian territorial waters, by two missiles fired from US Navy Missile Cruiser, USS Vincennes; 290 people died. The US refused to accept responsibility for the action. It paid a sum of $61.8 million as compensation to the families of victims, following the ruling of an International Tribunal.

What the US paid was less than 3 per cent of what it got from Libya, for the bombing of Pan Am 103, parts of which then crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland. The captain of the USS Vincennes was awarded Combat Action Ribbons shortly after shooting down the civil airliner!

Surprising response

Washington’s displeasure at Russian supply of surface to air missiles to the Russian resistance in Ukraine is surprising. It was the US that started the practice of providing lethal weaponry to non-state actors. The CIA liberally provided lethal Stinger surface-to-air missiles (SAM) to the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan, through the ISI. Three Indian Air Force Aircraft — a MiG 21, a MiG 27 and a helicopter gunship — were shot down and a Canberra bomber damaged, during and just prior to the Kargil conflict. The IAF aircraft were fired at by Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry, using what were assessed to be Stinger SAMs.

Given the relentless US policy of strategic “containment” of Russia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it was inevitable that pushed into a corner by American and Nato pressures, the Russians would reach a position of saying: “Thus far and no further”.

The erratic policies of the former Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his advisers such as Yegor Gaidar and Andrey Kozyrev immediately after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, evidently encouraged the US and its Nato allies to erode Russian influence in the Balkans and undermine its credibility in Kosovo. Simultaneously, members of armed Chechen separatist groups were openly welcomed in western Europe. Yeltsin’s incompetence in Chechnya and his inability to deal with the expansion of American-led influence just across Russia’s borders contributed to his being eased out of office and replaced by Vladimir Putin.

Reintegrating the republics

Even as the Russians tried to integrate the former Soviet republics economically and strategically, the US and its Nato allies also held out lucrative offers for economic integration with the European Union and membership of the Nato military alliance. Russia faced economic isolation and military encirclement. It responded by developing economic partnerships with the former Soviet republics and establishing the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

The economic and security inroads by the EU and Nato have, however, significantly eroded traditional Russian influence in its immediate neighbourhood. These moves have resulted in the former Warsaw Pact members — the Czech and Slovak republics, Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania and Poland — joining Nato. In the Balkans, Croatia and Slovenia are now Nato members, as also There are also moves to consider EU and Nato membership for Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Georgia.

Ukraine was ruled by Russian Tsars for three centuries prior to the formation of the Soviet Union. It was regarded as part of the sphere of Russian influence. Its eastern region bordering Russia was increasingly populated by Russians. Ukraine’s Crimean region was transferred by the former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to Ukraine in 1954, as a “gesture of goodwill,” marking the 300th anniversary of Ukraine being a part of Tsarist Russia.

Inconsistent stand

The US-led attempts to contain Russia have been marked by inconsistencies. The dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the independence of Kosovo were justified by the western powers on the lofty grounds of respect for “human rights”.

But, today these same powers are raving and ranting against the “separatists” of the Russian minority in Ukraine, who are seeking independence, or merger with Russia. There is little doubt that Russia today faces serious internal problems arising from falling birth rates, alcoholism, drug addiction, declining life expectancy and corruption. But it would be a historical error to underestimate Russian resilience in the face of adversity.

Attempts to dominate and marginalise the Russian minority in Ukraine would be fiercely resisted and reinforced by support from across the border. What is needed is a realistic political solution involving a united but federalised Ukraine.

More importantly, attempts at “containment” of Russia will have to be eschewed and the expansion of Nato across Russia’s borders ended. Given the imperatives of stability and energy security, responsible European countries such as Germany and France would recognise this. Would the Americans do likewise?

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan