Putin the aggressor, and the downing of Malaysian Flight MH17

Developing

One man, President Vladimir Putin, and one country, the Russian Federation, are responsible for launching an invasion of the Crimea and its annexation, and the invasion by special operations and irregular forces of the eastern Ukraine, particularly in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and the territory in between.

As the Ukrainian armed forces have tightened their noose around the so-called “pro-Russian separatists” (actually led by Russian citizens who are either current or former military intelligence officers), Russia has dramatically increased its directed flow of Russian “volunteers” (recruited and dispatched by Russia) across the border into the Ukraine.

In coordinated large-scale military operations, Ukrainian border posts and control centers have been attacked and/or taken over by “separatist” forces, throwing the border wide open. These forces appear to have included Russian special operations and irregular troops.

After the fall of Sloviansk to the Ukrainian armed forces and the retreat of the “separatists” to the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russia has supplied pro-Russian forces with growing numbers of heavy weapons including tanks and increasingly sophisticated air-defense systems. The latter have been used in recent weeks to shoot down Ukrainian aircraft, including a transport plane whose downing led to the loss some 41 lives. Only days ago, another plane was shot down. A Ukrainian jet was also shot down by a missile which may have been launched in Russia.

Vladimir Putin, who launched his war of aggression and annexation in blatant violation of Article 2 paragraph 4 of the U.N. Charter and its absolute prohibition of “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence” of any state, is morally and legally responsible for actions taken in the war he launched and which he continues to coordinate in the eastern Ukraine.

His efforts to maintain “plausible deniability” as he engages in the new Russian form of “stealth warfare” (e.g., “little green men” in the Crimea, subsequently acknowledged to be Russian special forces), are transparent and in vain in terms of shielding him from political and legal responsibility.

Just as he and Russia are complicit and responsible under international law for supporting the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Bashar al-Assad and his regime in Syria, Putin is responsible for the actions of the military and irregular forces he has launched against the eastern Ukraine in what is an ongoing and intensifying invasion and war of aggression.

Nor should we forget the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Putin and Russia in Chechnya.

He is a presumptive war criminal. A cold-blooded killer.

For the taking of a human life outside the framework of domestic and international law–which provides for self-defense and punishment-with-due-process exceptions–is, in legal and moral terms, simply murder.

Only an international or domestic court can make the authoritative finding that Putin is legally guilty of war crimes. One can only hope that some day, perhaps in the distant future, such proceedings will be held. In the meantime, we can draw our own conclusions from the evidence that is available. Certainly he deserves to be tried as an accused war criminal.

The next time Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, or Barack Obama sits down for dinner and a glass of wine with Vladimir Putin, they should have present in their mind that they are looking into the cold blue eyes and expressionless face of a presumptive war criminal responsible for the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands of human beings.

We don’t know what specific orders and chain of command was responsible for the downing of Malaysian Flight MH17. However, it is worth noting that Putin has often responded to increased sanctions with an escalation (e.g., annexation of the Crimea), and increased “targeted sanctions” were imposed by the U.S. and the EU only a few days ago.

It is hard to imagine that “separatist” forces in the Ukraine, or even Russian forces operating within Russia, would be shooting down Ukrainian aircraft or presumed Ukrainian planes without Putin’s knowledge and assent.

In that sense, at a minimum, Putin’s fingerprints are on the trigger that fired the missile that downed Malaysian Flight MH17.

See

(1) Review and Outlook (Opinion), “The Downing of MH17; Putin is the one leader who quickly assigned blame for the disaster,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2014.

(2) Carsten Luther, “FLUG MH17: Dieser Abschuss verändert alles, Die Zeit, 18. Juli 2014.

“Indizien deuten darauf hin: Von Russland unterstützte Separatisten haben das Passagierflugzeug in der Ukraine abgeschossen. Der Konflikt erreicht damit eine neue Stufe.”

(3) Anne Applebaum, “The Malaysia Airlines crash is the end of Russia’s fairy tale,” Washington Post, July 18, 2014 (2:57 PM).

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"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

3 Comments on "Putin the aggressor, and the downing of Malaysian Flight MH17"

  1. Daniel Waldvogel | July 18, 2014 at 12:43 am |

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