Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 July 2014


You can tell a lot about a man from the name he chooses for himself, or the nickname others choose for him. “Strelyat’” (стрелять) in Russian means “to shoot.” In context, it can mean shoot to death.

So Igor Vsevolodovich “Strelkov” Girkin, the self-proclaimed “Defense Minister” of the would-be breakaway Donyetskii Republic, defines himself by his weapons. Yesterday, as a probable result of his macho self-definition, nearly three hundred wholly innocent fliers and crew on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 were killed.

This is what happens when stupid, angry children get dangerous toys.

How stupid? Let me count the ways. First, the plane was flying at 33,000 ft and was about 25 miles from the Russian border when hit. At a speed of at least 550 nautical miles per hour (a reasonable minimum for a civilian aircraft at that altitude), it would have gotten there in less than three minutes. To be anywhere near any ground action inside Donyetsk, it would have had to have been diving precipitously.

But it wasn’t. It was visibly proceeding in a straight line at a level altitude, like any civilian aircraft in the middle of a long international flight.

Second, even had the plane been a military aircraft, which it wasn’t, a moron could see it wasn’t headed for military action inside Ukraine. And it certainly wasn’t headed for an attack inside Russia. The last thing Kiev wanted or wants to do is give the Russian Bear an excuse to invade.

Third, in proclaiming himself the “Defense Minister” of a self-proclaimed temporary republic, whose stated purpose was and is to become a province of Russia as quickly as possible, “Strelkov” neglected two vital facts. A majority of people in Eastern Ukraine, including Donyetsk, are Ukrainian speakers. They want to be governed by Kiev.

But “Strelkov” disregarded these essential political facts. A military man devoid of political skill—a child playing with powerful toys—he apparently thought fancy weapons would overcome them. And he may have so convinced Russian authorities, including Putin himself.

We can be sure of one thing. The downing of MH17 was not a deliberate atrocity. No one—not even “Strelkov”—had a rational motive to destroy a civilian aircraft and its passengers and crew; and no one stands to gain from that tragedy, at least not directly or immediately. (Kiev of course will gain politically if a proper investigation eventually points the finger at Russian-leaning extremists, as appears likely.)

It was an atrocity by negligence, but an atrocity nevertheless. Manslaughter or negligent homicide is a crime, like murder, albeit not a capital one. And the deaths of so many innocent people make it an aggravated offense.

Of course many questions remain to be answered. Was “Strelkov” directly responsible for the atrocity? Did he order or permit the downing of an unknown aircraft without adequate verification of its origin and hostile intent? Was he directly in the chain of command? Or was he only indirectly responsible, by creating a rebel culture of negligence, aggression and terror in which such an atrocity-by-negligence was not only possible, but likely?

It’s unlikely that Russia or Putin is directly responsible, for example, by ordering the strike. But was Russia or Putin indirectly responsible? Did either send this reported former FSB agent and retired Russian intelligence colonel into the Donbass, and for what purpose? Or was he a patriotic “volunteer,” like the many foreigners who fought on both sides in the last century’s Spanish Civil War? Did he have official sanction (unlikely) or informal encouragement and some supplies (more likely) from Russians?

Did Russia supply “Strelkov” and his minions with the sophisticated, high-altitude anti-aircraft missile that downed MH17 (unlikely)? Or did “Strelkov” and his minions capture or steal it from a known armory in Ukraine left over from the days when Ukraine was a docile part of the Russian Federation or even the old Soviet Union (more likely)? And if the latter, were Russian authorities complicit and, if so, who?

Only a careful and thorough investigation can answer these questions. A good investigation will take time, if only because the principals may not be available to testify unless and until we catch them first. Remember the Serbian fugitives?

With one voice and one heart, the entire international community should make investigating and prosecuting this crime a top priority. Once caught, tried and convicted, the principal offenders, most probably including “Strelkov,” should spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

But no cloud is so dark as to lack a silver lining. This atrocity-by-negligence may finally cause Vladimir Putin and the Russian people to wake up.

For one of Russia’s smartest and most effective leaders ever, Putin has had an abysmal record in foreign affairs. In his choice of foreign leaders to support, he is zero for three.

So far, he has supported three monsters: Assad, Yanukovych, and now “Strelkov” (although his support for “Strelkov” appeared to have been waning when this atrocity occurred.) The results of this foreign policy are: (1) a broken and maimed Syria—a pariah among nations and a playground for terrorists; (2) a Ukraine teetering on the brink of civil war; and now (3) a planeload of innocent foreigners, having no connection with any policy of Russia’s, shot down while flying innocently in legitimate international airspace. Maybe Putin, while smart and relatively benign himself, is just a bad judge of others’ character.

Surely Putin, as bright as he is, can understand that these consequences of his own abysmal policies are not good for Russia’s reputation or its future as a global player.

There is irony in all this. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin would never suffer anyone resembling any of these three monsters to govern any part of Russia.

Putin stopped direct elections of regional governors in the Russian Federation in large measure to prevent local monsters—local mafiosi and post-Communist strongmen and oligarchs—from taking over parts of Russia. Yet he suffers monsters to rule and wreak havoc in Russia’s “near abroad.” Maybe this terrible tragedy will cause him to rethink a policy of treating his neighbors as subhuman, as the Nazis once did them and his own people some seventy years ago.

As for the rest of us, we can turn this evil into good, but only if we act immediately and with rare unanimity. We must use this atrocity-by-negligence as a symbol and a warning. We must open a new era of individual responsibility, continuing the advance in human social evolution wrought by the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.

Nearly three hundred people have become victims of negligent homicide. Individual people were responsible: the soldier or irregular who fired the missile, the commander who ordered it, and the people who created the atmosphere of careless aggression and terror that fostered such negligence. The latter most probably include “Strelkov,” but his responsibility should be demonstrated, and widely publicized, in a court of law. All responsible should be tried, and the guilty convicted, in a court of law.

If this happens, “Strelkov” may go to his grave (directly from his jail cell) knowing that his bestial acts and their punishment served as a symbol to advance human social evolution. The near-300 innocent souls will not have died in vain. And our species may be one step farther away from our bad but all-too-frequent habit of putting monsters in charge of our most delicate affairs.

Footnote 1: You might say that Putin is one for four: his policies did result in Russia’s capture and annexation of Crimea. But that was an incidental and unintended consequence of Russia’s debacle in Ukraine, and an illegal action for which Russia will bear the opprobrium and distrust of the international community, and especially Russia’s “near abroad,” for decades to come.

Footnote 2: It’s entirely possible that “Strelkov’s” retirements from the FSB and Russian armed services were forced, and that his appearance in Donyetsk was the brainchild of a McCain-like rump group of militarist extremists within Russia’s clandestine and uniformed services. If so, yesterday’s events show how serious can be the unintended consequences of incompetence without malice: Russia’s government’s failure to keep track of and control people with dangerous skills and even more dangerous temperaments who once worked for it.

Whether officially sanctioned or the plot of a rump group, dumping misfits like “Strelkov” on neighbors is generally not good policy, especially in times of trouble. Avoiding this sort of disaster is one reason for civilian control of the military, which every major and regional power—including Iran but with the possible exception of Pakistan—now has. Maybe Putin’s control of Russia’s military needs to be a bit more firm and precise.



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