Perhaps it is time to tweak that famous Ian Fleming quote. Once is happenstance. Twice is enemy action. The world is unlikely to put down the disappearance of another Malaysian Airlines aircraft, the second in four months, simply to an unhappy coincidence. The problem is that whoever shot down MH17, traversing the airspace over eastern Ukraine, has made himself or themselves the enemy of little more than half the world. Although presidents, politicians and their public relations managers the world over are yet to extricate themselves from the loops of ‘diplomatese’ they spin around themselves and one another, they have managed to point at the man who they think is the main culprit — Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin’s encouragement and unceasing assistance to the pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine, in spite of his persistent disavowals, are believed to be responsible for the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft by rebels who mistook it for a Ukrainian military aircraft.
The fast-disappearing remnants of the Malaysian aircraft on Ukrainian soil — given the sudden spurt of activity among the locals — together with all the evidence that would have confirmed if a Russian-made Buk missile was responsible for the attack, may never make it easy to pin down the blame on Russia. But Mr Putin cannot rest his case on the opaqueness of black boxes alone. There is already too much evidence of Russian meddling in eastern Ukraine that his recent dramas have been unable to undo. Mr Putin has acknowledged the validity of Ukraine’s elections, promised to work with President Petro Poroshenko, professed his lack of control over pro-Russia rebels, upheld the ceasefires in eastern Ukraine and gone to the extent of asking the Upper House of Parliament to cancel the authorization for Russia’s use of military force in Ukraine, but he has not been able to wipe the blood off his hands. In fact, recent skirmishes of the pro-Russia militias with government forces in eastern Ukraine have, more credibly than before, established Russia’s continued interference in the region.
That has not unduly worried Mr Putin though. So long as Russia could stave off direct action in Ukraine, battles, interspersed with ceasefires and negotiations that kept the eastern region perennially on the boil and eternally grateful to Russia, suited him fine. But the shooting down of MH17 may make it impossible for him to carry on this game. First, there definitely has to be a truce that is maintained long enough for an international investigation that could go on for months and deepen Ukraine’s hold over the east. Second, even Mr Putin’s sympathizers in Europe, such as Germany, can no longer ignore the call for stronger sanctions against Russia, the delaying of which was behind much of Mr Putin’s recent dramas. The restitution of Ukraine’s authority over the eastern region, the West’s acknowledgement, finally, of Ukraine’s need to do that, and the unavoidable closing of ranks against Russia may now change the complexion of the entire Ukraine crisis. That could also be the opening pages of another epic saga of conflict between East and West.