Blood on Putin’s hands?

Published by The Daily Mail (18th July 2014)

The world may have averted its gaze towards Israel and Gaza, but this week the rumbling warfare in eastern Ukraine has been erupting into something growing daily more dangerous.

Three Ukrainian planes have been reported shot down with missiles, scores of soldiers and separatist fighters killed, and an apartment block destroyed by an air strike, though it is disputed who fired the missiles that killed 11 people inside.

Meanwhile the Russian bear, still pretending to be an innocent party despite blood dripping from its paws, has begun stealthily rebuilding its forces on the border.

Now we may well have witnessed the kind of shocking event that happens when heavy armaments are placed in the hands of untrained and desperate militias. For if the Malaysian plane has been shot down by Russian separatists – and given recent events this is far from implausible – it marks an alarming escalation in a crisis many people may have thought was dribbling into a ceasefire.

Not only will those 295 people flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur be victims of a civil war that could not have had less to do with them. But they would have been slaughtered by forces armed, funded, guided and possibly trained by Russia.

Pro-Russian rebels instantly blamed the event on a ‘provocation’ by the Ukrainian military. This is the same word I’ve heard so often in recent months in Ukraine from those in thrall to the Kremlin. It was used first to justify Moscow’s illegal seizure of Crimea, then to stir up open warfare in its weary neighbouring state just as it stood on the threshold of finally shaking off the legacy of its Soviet past.

Alexander Borodai, pro-Russian separatist leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine, said his forces did not have the means to destroy an airliner flying at an altitude  of 33,000ft.

Yet it seems unlikely that Ukraine, at last run by a convincing leader with a large and genuine mandate, would have shot down a passenger jet and thus destroyed its own global reputation. Instead, one interior ministry official in Kiev said the aircraft was hit by a rocket fired from a Buk launcher.

 These sophisticated weapons, launched from motorised platforms equipped with radar, were developed 35 years ago by the Soviets to destroy planes and missiles flying at up to 72,000ft – and one was seen by a Western news agency in the rebel-held eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne earlier yesterday.

Late last month, militia members from eastern Ukraine also told Russian journalists that they had taken control of an unspecified number of these anti-aircraft weapons.

It was also reported that a second rebel leader bragged on social media about destroying another plane. Already this week, a Ukrainian military transporter has been downed with a missile, possibly fired from the Russian side of the Ukrainian border, along with two SU-25 fighter jets.

In recent days, Ukrainian officials have blamed Russia for assaults on their troops, alleging that one air force jet downed on Wednesday was hit by a missile fired from a Russian military aircraft.

Kiev has also accused Russian staff officers of openly taking part in military operations against their forces, while Nato said earlier this week that Moscow had boosted its forces on the border to about 12,000 troops.

General Philip Breedlove, Nato’s supreme allied commander in Europe, believes Moscow has been supplying the pro-Russian rebels with anti-aircraft weapons, and teaching them how to operate them in training sessions near the border.

All these events underline the tensions as Ukraine under its new president, Petro Poroshenko – an oligarch nicknamed the ‘Chocolate King’ after making a fortune from confectionery – seeks to quell a Russian-inspired insurgency that began four months ago.

Before yesterday’s crash, the United Nations said the conflict has caused more than 400 deaths and displaced tens of thousands of families.

The destruction of the plane could not have come at a worse moment. The rebels, forced out of their stronghold of Slavyansk, have fallen back to Donetsk, eastern Ukraine’s biggest city, and were pleading with Russian president Vladimir Putin to come to their rescue.

One Russian newspaper with strong Kremlin ties quoted official sources saying the Russian authorities were weighing up ‘retaliatory strikes’.

On Wednesday, the US showed its frustration with Moscow’s continued trouble-making by imposing a new round of sanctions. Targets include oil, gas and financial firms linked to Putin, along with eight arms manufacturers including the maker of Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Yet even while Putin spluttered with outrage in response, several of the targets of those sanctions responded by crowing that it was business as usual.

The big question is what happens if it is proved Putin’s friends in eastern Ukraine have shot down a civilian passenger jet filled with families, holidaymakers and business travellers?

Will the West finally respond with the ruthless decisiveness required to put a power-crazy president back in his box, or will they continue to allow him to sow death and destruction as he acts out his Tsarist fantasies of restoring Russian hegemony over swathes of eastern Europe?

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