More on MH 17

Everyone knows that Malaysian airliner flight MH 17 that overflew Eastern Ukraine was brought down by a missile. We also know that previously the western Ukrainian forces had been carrying out bombing raids on the Eastern break-away province, and had lost at least one aircraft to ground missiles. Under the circumstances, some may think that it was totally foolhardy to fly over the area, and also Ukraine should have closed its air space to commercial flights. Mistakes happen, and the eastern forces obviously had missile defences.

However, international investigators have filed charges in a Dutch court, alleging four defendants committed murder. One defendant is Igor Girkin, a former FSB colonel, and at the time the Minister for Defence for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Exactly how he is linked as a murderer is hard to tell at this stage because he would not have been present at the firing of the missile, and apart from the fact he is a rebel in Kyiv’s eyes, his role as Defence Minister does not seem to be that evil. There is no evidence so far he ordered such an aircraft to be brought down. The fact that he was organising a defence against the bombing of civilians brings international justice to an interesting point: what criteria have to be met for a rebellious zone to claim it is self-governing? If people are being bombed, do they have the right to defend themselves? What say you?

The next two defendants were Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov. According to the New York Times article, they worked under Girkin and had been agents of the GRU, which was implicated in interfering with the US election. Talk about guilt by association. The fourth, Leonid Kharchenko is Ukrainian and was apparently a leader of a separatist combat unit. Just maybe he was associated with the event. So far there is no evidence produced that any of these four were anywhere near the missile launch, but of course they may have some evidence and are leaving it for the trial. The basis of Girkin’s charges appears to be that he made a phone call (intercepted) to Russia asking for antiaircraft defence material. If you are a Minister for Defence, and you are being bombed, is that an unreasonable thing to ask for? According to the Dutch prosecutor, they are “just as punishable as the person who committed the crime.” They are also charged with obtaining the missile with the intent to “shoot down a plane”. Well, that is a surprise. Why else would they obtain missiles? Presumably, the Dutch have no missiles, or they would be criminals too.

There is also the question of where the missile came from. Originally, of course, it came from Russia, and it is agreed by all involved that it was a Buk missile. The investigative team said it is “convinced” the missile came from the Russian army’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade based in Kursk. The Russians deny that. They also point out that the outer casing of the missile has been recovered, and the manufacturing number is clearly identifiable. According to the BUK factory, that missile was shipped to Ukraine during the old Soviet Union. It should also be noted the missile is obsolete, and a modern unit of the Russian army would not have them. It is well established that Ukraine had a major arsenal in Eastern Ukraine, so maybe it came from there, but even if Russia supplied arms, then what?

The Dutch prosecutor has also accused Russia of providing no assistance to this case. Apparently, providing shipping details of the missile that does not fit the charges is “of no assistance”. That says something about the nature of the charges. Interestingly, the premier of Malaysia has also denounced the charges, saying “so far, there is no proof, only hearsay”. Malaysia is part of the investigation, and of course it was its aircraft that was brought down.

The case is confused because the Joint Investigative Team is trying to identify two men who were overheard in intercepted communications discussing the movements of a convoy the day before the attack. The team also admits there is no evidence these calls have anything to do with MH 17. This is relevant to the alleged “Russian obstruction”. Apparently, the GRU were supplied with questions demanding to know whether certain people were GRU officers and where they have been moving. I can just see The CIA giving details of who their agents are and what they have been doing.

So where does all this leave us? The current position seems to be that the accused could be linked to arms procurement. Does that make it a crime to supply arms that end up killing civilians? What about those supplying arms to those bombing Yemen? So far, at least 70,000 dead, but the Dutch don’t seem to find that exceptional. If it is a crime to shoot down an airliner, what happened to the US Navy officers that shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft some time ago? The short answer was the US regarded that as an accident, and I am reasonably convinced the US officers taking part in this would not have intended to kill civilians. They made an error, despite being extremely well-trained and having the best equipment available. So why is it not possible that Ukrainian irregulars, with little military training, could not make the same sort of mistake? My view is simple: do not fly over war zones where it is known the defenders are being bombed, and have anti-aircraft missiles. This trial, if it ever takes place, will be simply political. The defendants will be absent, which makes the whole point ridiculous, other than, maybe, to make the Dutch feel good. Then again, maybe that is a benefit.

Fragmenting Nations

One of the more interesting questions that have arisen lately is should a region of a country have the right to break away from the country and be independent, and if so, what are the obligations of the participants? The classic way of breaking away is to have a war. The US got its independence from Britain that way, as did Eire. Does nationhood depend on “might makes right?” It can, but surely there are other ways.

It certainly helped Kosovo, and Kosovo is of interest because it was effectively US air power and NATO forces that won the war. Clinton described the activity as “upholding our values, protecting our interests, and advancing the cause of peace”. Strictly speaking, this action had no UN Security Council approval, therefore it could be regarded as illegal, and it was described as illegal but justified. Whether the Serbs would agree is another matter, and it then becomes interesting that violating the law is fine as long as you think it is justified. Who says so? The guys with the most guns?

The background to Kosovo is of interest. Some in Kosovo wanted independence, particularly those of Albanian origin, and apparently things got out of hand when the Kosovo Liberation Army made four attacks on Serbian security people. The Serbians soon began calling the KLA terrorists (and since they carried out sneak murders, that is probably fair) while the Albanians saw them as “freedom fighters”. Up until 1998, the US government described the KLA as a terrorist group, but suddenly it changed its mind and used NATO to intervene. End of Kosovo Serbians’ hopes. US intervention had another effect: it took the Monica Lewinsky affair off the news table for President Clinton. The US used cluster bombs, and did serious damage and caused considerable civilian casualties, including to Albanians in Kosovo, but the net result was that Kosovo apparently has declared independence. However, not everyone recognizes this, and it remains to some extent under UN administration.

It would seem fair for a split if those leaving did so by winning a referendum that was fairly executed. Scotland had such a vote and decided to stay, so the issue does not arise, however I believe had the vote been yes, London would have agreed. Of course this raises the question that if they keep having votes, sooner or later they will get one result to leave, and that would be irreversible. So maybe there has to be a limit to the number or spacing of referenda.

However, votes can also be rigged in favour of some end. The vote to have a separate Kurdistan would probably win for the Kurds, but would they take Kirkuk? To make sure they would, when the Iraqi army fled from ISIS, a large number of Kurds poured into Kirkuk, and so I guess they would win a vote. But if you pour in the appropriate number of extras to win the vote, is that the right way to go? My guess is no. Then the question is, is the vote fair? When Crimea seceded from Ukraine and joined Russia, this was done with a clear majority vote favouring it, but the Russians had poured in a number of soldiers and they ran the voting system, and as a consequence a number of people do not believe it was fair. My guess is, it probably was because there were a lot of people of Russian descent there, but we cannot be sure. In Crimea, it probably was a case of “might makes right”, but if the Russian military did not come in, the Ukrainians had the might, and as can be seen in eastern Ukraine, they are prepared to use it.

Suppose we look at Catalonia. There have been widespread claims that Catalonia should be independent from Spain, and they held a referendum, which gained 90% in favour. So that is clear evidence, right? Maybe not. Spain declared the referendum illegal and sent in riot police. Those not in favour of independence may well have considered the vote illegal, and they wanted no part in it. It now turns out that only about 40% of those eligible to vote participated, so maybe this was not as conclusive as the enthusiasts claim.

The next question is, why do people want independence? Presumably because they feel they would be better off independent. The Catalans apparently are net donors (tax paid less benefits) to Madrid of about 10 billion euros. However, this might be a little misleading because there are a number of Head Offices of Spanish companies in Barcelona, so company tax from all activities in Spain would be paid from Barcelona. If Barcelona were in a separate country, presumably the activities from Spain would remain taxed by Spain. In Scotland’s case, one can’t help wondering whether the politicians had their eyes on the North Sea oil revenues. In my opinion, in such a breakup, existing royalties and such should be divided between the original members based on population, in which case the returns would be a lot less.

That leaves the Lukansk, Donbass and Donetz oblasts in Eastern Ukraine. Should they have independence? A lot of opinions in the West say yes; territorial integrity should outweigh grumpy citizens. In this case, Western Ukraine has quite different objectives; they want to join the EU while the East wants closer ties with Russia. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of this, in my opinion there has been enough shelling and bombing of these oblasts that the citizens there will not accept the Western domination. The West complains about Russian intervention that has helped the Eastern Ukrainians. In doing so, they conveniently forget Kosovo. Also, it is now very doubtful Ukraine could join the EU, and if they did, they would find EU financial impositions on Ukraine would make Greece look somewhat attractive. My guess is, Germany would not be willing to carry an even bigger load.

So, what are the conditions for breaking up? I rather fancy there is no recipe. The various places have to find their own salvation. Nothing could be worse, however, than encouraging a breakup, and leaving one part without adequate resources, or encouraging them, and then walking away after the event.