Editor’s Note: Steven Pifer discusses the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and the military capabilities that both the Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military possess in an interview with Robert McMahon of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The crash of a Malaysian passenger jet over eastern Ukraine on July 17 that killed 298 people could sharply escalate tensions involving Ukraine, Russia, and pro-Russian separatists. It is crucial at this stage for an international investigation to be launched, with neutral participants, to withstand charges of bias, says Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. But the international community, particularly the United States and Europe, should be prepared to ramp up sanctions against Russia in the event evidence linking separatists to the crash is firmed up, he says.
Robert McMahon: Details are still murky in this incident involving the Malaysian airliner but it comes at a time of increasing clashes in eastern Ukraine, including aircraft downed by pro-Russian separatists. Can you talk about the separatists capabilities in this area?
Steven Pifer: The separatists over the last three weeks have had some success in bringing down Ukrainian military aircraft, usually more at lower altitudes and the suspicion is they have used Stinger-like missiles. But by all accounts the Malaysian airliner was flying at an altitude of about 30,000 feet. Shoulder-fired systems could not reach that altitude but there have been some reports that the separatists do have access to the ‘Buk’ missile system. It is a large missile mounted on a truck and it would have the capabilities to reach that altitude.
McMahon: What about Ukrainian government forces’ air capabilities?
Pifer: The Ukrainians do have some air defense capabilities including against high altitude targets but as far as we have seen there has been no use so far in this conflict in eastern Ukraine by the Ukrainian military of surface-to-air missiles because the separatists do not have aircraft.
McMahon: The crash area is on contested ground. How should authorities, both local and international, best respond in a situation like this?
Pifer: The most important thing is to have an international group with representatives of the Ukrainian government, Malaysia [and] Boeing should be there because it’s a Boeing aircraft. It’s also important to bring in some neutral observers from places like Finland, Austria, and Switzerland because at the end of the day you will want an investigation that is as credible as possible and be able to withstand concerns expressed by different sides that it’s slanted one way or another. This will be the big first test: are the separatists prepared to allow that sort of investigation to take place in an area where they appear to have some significant forces?
McMahon: What is the relationship between Russian authorities and these separatist rebels?
Pifer: There have been a lot of reports over the last three or four weeks, including by the U.S. government and NATO, of weapons and supplies flowing across the Russian border into Ukraine, including heavy weapons such as tanks. So, if it turns out that the separatists did in fact shoot down the aircraft the question will arise: who provided the separatists in eastern Ukraine with the capabilty to shoot down that airliner at that kind of altitude? Even yesterday there was reporting that seems to have a fair degree of credibility of rockets being launched from inside Russia, about three miles inside Russia, into Ukraine. So there’s a lot of evidence here that the Russians have been very supportive of the separatists.
There is a separate question, which is how much control do they have over the separatists. You have a number of locals who were involved in the separatist groups but there is also a fair suspicion that there are Russian military or perhaps Russian intelligence personnel involved at least in some of these operations. Particularly at the beginning [of the crisis in Ukraine] you saw people who looked very much like professional Russian military personnel in some of the original takeover of buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk back in April.
McMahon: This comes a day after tougher sanctions announced by the US and EU against Russia. They fell short of sectoral sanctions. Are they having any impact yet?
Pifer: The sanctions that were applied even before the sanctions announced yesterday were having an economic impact on Russia. For example, Bloomberg reported about a month ago that in 2013 Russian companies were able to place about $43 billion in foreign currency bonds. In January and February this year it was about $6 to $7 billion, since March it’s been zero.
What it hasn’t yet done is cause Russia to change its course on Ukraine and become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The sanctions announced [this week] by the United States and European Union look to be a bit more serious. You now have the U.S. government blocking lending to some very big Russian companies and Russian financial institutions. The Europeans are blocking all lending to Russia by the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. So the questions is will these sanctions begin to have an impact on Russian policy?