It is now almost certain that pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 using a Russian-made missile. As some of the initial shock begins to wear off, it may be worth it to step back and consider what the incident means for Russia’s place within the international system.
Let’s start with what is not unusual about this incident. First, the practice of loosely organized nonstate actors — terrorists, guerrillas, revolutionaries, militants and other irregular fighters — harming civilians is not new. The 9/11 attacks against the United States forever altered international relations. There have also been exceptionally deadly terrorist attacks in scores of other countries, including Russia, Israel, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Spain, England and the Philippines.
Second, these rogue actors have always received refuge and material support such as supplies, money and armaments from states looking to use proxies as a way to subvert their adversaries. The Cold War is replete with examples of both the Soviet Union and the United States supporting foreign guerrillas to fight their respective ideological battles. Communist East Germany supported the terrorist Red Army Faction in West Germany in the 1970s and ’80s. From 1979 to the early 1990s, the U.S. supported the contras to fight the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Iran currently supports Hezbollah against Israel, while Israel, the U.S. and Turkey have all been accused of arming rebels to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
The main difference in the tragic MH17 incident is that a state — Russia — provided extremely powerful surface-to-air missiles to its terrorist proxies in another state. By doing so, Russia violated informal norms among states on permissible forms of subversion. Such actions threaten to upend the entire international security system.
The rationale for supporting irregular fighters is typically to annoy, destabilize and subvert neighboring states. A sponsoring state keeps the rival population on edge, diverts its government’s attention away from local reforms, drains the country’s resources and foments internal discontent to engineer a regime change through an internal coup or popular rebellion. However, such outside attempts at subversion often backfire — strengthening the government by stoking national unity. For example, the U.S. support of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 only helped consolidate Fidel Castro’s fragile regime in Cuba. But the mixed success rate of outside subversion has not deterred states from pursuing such a strategy.
Until now, states have not provided subversive proxies with advanced armaments. Although all states fear that terrorists could acquire nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, established states — even those considered rogue by the international community — have avoided supplying terrorists with such weapons. President George W. Bush accused Iraq’s Saddam Hussein of this transgression, but his accusations later proved unfounded.
States usually avoid such behavior for two reasons. First, the sponsoring states fear getting embroiled in international and regional instability once their proxies acquire the means to destabilize and destroy entire populations or states. Weakening adversaries may be a desirable end, but your proxies going out of control, destroying adversaries and creating chaos in the process are not. Second, there is no guarantee that proxies would spare their sponsors in the future when interests diverge or that they won’t sell the weapons to forces fighting their sponsors. After all, terrorists are fickle allies. The U.S. certainly learned both lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq, even though the armaments it supplied to Iraqi and Afghan insurgents were far short of high-tech weapons.
Rational state sponsors of terrorism have historically avoided violating this logic. In other words, states want subversives to cause trouble in neighboring states, but they do not want those proxies to gain the capacity to eventually threaten their sponsors. States that are guided by relentless pursuit of national interests would be as opposed to such weapons proliferation as those that are guided by devotion to international norms.
Moscow defied this logic by supplying missiles that could shoot down airliners flying at 33,000 feet to pro-Russian terrorists in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s irresponsible behavior may now encourage terrorist groups around the world, signaling that Moscow is open for business. Terrorists could now approach Russia with shopping lists for advanced weaponry, including the radar-guided SA-11 or Buk missile, which was apparently used to down the MH17 airliner.
Once the ongoing international investigation is completed, states and institutions such as the United Nations will likely react with outrage to Russia’s transgression of accepted behavior. Ukraine and the U.S. have already accused Russia of complicity in the crime. In order to minimize future irresponsible transfers of destructive weapons to nonstate actors, the international community will likely target Russia by strengthening control over Russian weapons production, increase espionage against terrorist groups and their connections to Russia and pay especially close attention to Russian intelligence agencies.
The downing of Flight MH17 may qualify as a crime against humanity or a war crime because it took place within the context of a massive Russian escalation of the terrorist war against Ukraine.
In the longer run, the sheer scale of the human tragedy caused by Moscow’s reckless actions, as well as international efforts to curb future transfers of such weapons to terrorists, will move Russia further away from the international community into rogue state territory.
Putin has already pushed Russia far in that direction. Under his rule, Russia engaged in wanton destruction of civilians during its war against Chechen and other militants in the northern Caucasus region, dismembered Georgia in 2008, invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, and aided and abetted terrorists in the destruction of a civilian airliner. The downing of Flight MH17 may even qualify as a crime against humanity or a war crime, precisely because it took place within the context of a massive Russian escalation of the terrorist war against Ukraine. Significantly, on July 22, the Red Cross made a confidential legal assessment that Ukraine was officially in a war, opening the door to prosecutions for war crimes, such as, possibly, for the destruction of Flight MH17. Whatever the exact designation, Putin, who hosted the Sochi Olympics to world acclaim only a few months ago, has been transformed into a rogue leader who could, if he refuses to change his ways, even morph into an international outlaw. A similar process is transforming his country from Mother Russia into the Wicked Witch of the East.
Under such conditions, more states will likely reduce their political and economic engagements with Russia and its leaders. If that happens, Russia’s economy will atrophy and the regime will resort to more repression to cling to power. In the longer term, such a scenario could facilitate Putin’s downfall through either a popular rebellion or an internal coup led by disgruntled elements of the elite.
Putin thumbed his nose at the world and got away with it in Crimea. In denying any responsibility for the downing of MH17, he is thumbing his nose again. This time he may not get away with it.