Monday, July 21, 2014

Solidarity needed if sanctions against Russia are to work

Following the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 there has been much talk of increasing pressure on Russia's president Vladimir Putin, applying sanctions in order to force him to exert influence on pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

Responsibility & blame

Putin has dismissed the rebels were responsible for downing the airliner, and Russia's media has countered such suggestions with its own theories that the Ukrainian government was itself to blame.

Flying over a war zone, even at more than 10,000 metres, is not to be encouraged. And while there were advisories suggesting commercial jets avoid the area, there was no blanket ban.

South Korea's two main airlines, Korean Air and Asiana, as well as Australia's Qantas and Taiwan's China Airlines said they had all re-routed flights from as early as the beginning of March when Russian troops moved into Crimea. But others had decided the risk was minimal.

Prior to the shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing 777-200, the route was declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. In addition the International Air Transportation Association had stated that the airspace the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions.

Indeed. until Thursday 17th July, Virgin Atlantic, Air India, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, Air China, China Eastern Airways, Jet Airlines, Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Austrian Airlines had continued to fly across the region [BBC / Telegraph / Daily Mail].

Calls for action

While the aircraft may have been mistakenly shot down by rebels believing it to be a Ukrainian military plane the act is nonetheless seen by many as a terrorist or criminal act that should not go unpunished. And Putin's support of the pro-Russian separatists has drawn particular focus.

Anger amongst the families who lost loved ones has grown. The pain and anger was greatest in Holland. The Netherlands lost 193 people including 22 children and there were calls for stiffer sanctions against Russia who are believed to have supplied the BUK surface-to-Air missile launcher used in the attack.

Over the weekend there were reports of looting and desecration of the scene with pro-Russian militia picking through the personal effects of those on board the stricken flight. One picture showed some members of the militia smiling as they held up children's toys scattered across the fields of eastern Ukraine. The rebels were also accused of hiding, removing and destroying evidence [Telegraph].

Late Sunday, one rebel commander announced they had possession of the so-called black boxes and would hand them over to the appropriate authorities [Daily Mail]. This appeared to dispel earlier reports that the devices had been spirited away to Moscow. However, inspectors from the OSCE, sent to investigate site, say they have been threatened and prevented from having proper access.

Political response

Indeed it appeared that the media had better access to the crime scene than air crash investigators. In Holland some relatives called for NATO to get involved in order to allow investigators do their job. Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond ruled out any military intervention or protection force and said it was not within NATO's remit. Speaking on Dermot Murnaghan's Sunday magazine show on Sky News, the foreign secretary criticised the "interference with what is potentially an important crime scene" and said it was "not acceptable".

Murnaghan confronted him, suggesting that Britain and others were "pussyfooting around". "Why don't we just send those people [investigators] in with military protection if required, I'm sure the Ukrainian authorities would back that, and say shoot us if you dare, we are doing the right thing."

Hammond evaded the question, merely saying that Ukrainian authorities do not control the site and there was "a war going on".

Rather than storm in and demand access, the international community was relying on diplomacy, threats of further Russian sanctions and increased pressure on Putin to exact influence on the rebels.

By Monday there were signs that Putin was attempting to appease the West in its continued request to access the crash site. "Today there are already working representatives of Donbass, Donetsk, representatives of Ministry of Ukraine, experts Malaysia," Putin said on national television, "But this is not enough." [Pravda]

Even if access is given, there are some who still believe Russia should be punished for its perceived role in supplying and supporting the militia in eastern Ukraine.


Zbigniew Brzezinski speaking to Fareed Zakaria on CNN's Global Public Square over the weekend said western leaders should wake up to Russia's belligerence and exploitation of Europe.

"I think President Hollande has to face the fact that he cannot now, at this moment, be sending advanced arms to help Russia. Prime Minister Cameron should face the fact that the city of London has become a Las Vegas for Russian financial transactions that are self-serving."

"My sense is that the European public opinion is aroused. This humanitarian issue is so tragic, so painful, so cruel and so unnecessary that the Europeans are beginning to be moved. But each of the major European leaders has a role to play. Chancellor Merkel has to face the fact that her predecessor, also a chancellor, was one of the creators of Europe's dependence on Russian energy supplies," the former US national security advisor said.

"We are, in fact, facing the first use of force over territorial issues in Europe since the outbreak of World War II," Brzezinski observed, and said that Russia was essentially precipitating another Cold War.

"We're not starting the Cold War. He [Putin] has started it. But he has gotten himself into horrendous jam. I strongly suspect that a lot of people in Russia, even not far away from him who are worried that Russia's status in the world is dramatically being undermined, that Russia's economically beginning to fail, that Russia's threatened by the prospect of becoming a satellite to China, that Russia's becoming self-isolated and discredited."

Brzezinski was not the only one to suggest Russia was risking becoming isolated. On Sky News the British foreign secretary had earlier said, "Russia risks becoming a pariah state if it does not behave properly."

The British press had already made their assessment however. Many of Sunday's papers had made the decision that Russia was a pariah state [Guardian]. Many editorials called for strong action and an imposing of strong sanctions.

Call for sanctions

Europe has been reticent to impose sanctions on Russia, especially due to reliance on natural gas. However Russia could suffer far more if Europe acted together [BBC / Telegraph].

Worst hit by the tragedy of MH17 is the Netherlands which buys the largest amount of Russian exports. In 2013 the Netherlands bought Russian exports worth $70,126,107,000, accounting for 13.3% of total Russian exports [Worlds Top Exports]. Europe as a whole could diminish Russian exports by more than 40%. Even Russia's strong ally, China, takes only $35,630,503,000 or 6.8% of Russian exports.

Given the Russian population of 142.5 million people, the total $526.4 billion in 2013 Russian exports translates to roughly $3,695 for every person in the country. A 50% cut in revenue could not only affect the economy but also Putin's popularity.

Stephen Cohen, Professor in Russian Studies at NYU and Princeton, was sceptical that any pressure on Putin would work. "The argument now is the strategic argument is that Putin can end this. This is preposterous," Cohen told CNN's Fareed Zakaria. Ukraine he added was a "classic example of a divided country" and the situation was "profoundly complicated".

Political & economic divisions

Last week the BRIC's nations signed deal to create their own financial bank. Putin, Modi, Rousseff, Xi and Zuma, all gathered in Fortaleza, Brazil and on Tuesday last week they sent a shot across the bow of the rest of the world by announcing a $50 billion bank meant to rival the World Bank and $100 billion crisis fund to replace the IMF.

Known as a development bank it comes as the main members, Brazil, Russia, India and China as well as South Africa, see themselves as being excluded from the IMF and World Bank.

Together the BRIC's nations contain 40% of the global population. Additionally it creates around 20% of the world's GDP and 17% of global trade. And with China's economy growing exponentially, Europe and the US may soon be overshadowed by the BRICs.

Sanctions on Russia may affect it in the short term, but as she and her allies join to form their own financial and trading club, such sanctions may become irrelevant.

Indeed this weeks events in the Ukraine may create further divisions as sanctions begin to bite at Russia's heels. With China often unwilling to play ball with WTO regulations and often siding with its Russian neighbour, the geopolitical and economic future may change dramatically in the coming years.

Nonetheless, Europe and other nations affected by the tragedy of MH17 should not be deterred in punishing Russia for its complicity in what is essentially becoming a dangerous proxy war [Politico].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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