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.
(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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