Stephen M. Saideman is Paterson chair in International Affairs at Carleton University and a fellow at CDFAI
Thursday's horrible disaster in the skies above contested Ukrainian territory may or may not change the politics of the conflict, but it may suggest to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to others the dangers of relying on others to do one's bidding.
From the outset of the Crimean crisis to now, it has been most clear that the separatists in Ukraine have been organized, facilitated, and equipped by Russia. They may not be entirely of Russia's creation and they are not entirely staffed by Russia, but it is clear that Russia's politicians have seen these separatists as their agents – their employees – to pressure and destabilize the Ukrainian government.
Leaders often have problems making their own militaries behave well, but controlling proxies, such as rebels elsewhere, is much, much more difficult. If one is relying on one's own military, you can promote/demote/fire poorly behaving officers. You can more easily control the assets they have, expanding or shrinking their authority and their capabilities. But with proxies such as rebel groups? Even ones which have members of your own military within them? Not so easy.
Russia wanted to destabilize Ukraine and, voilà, these "little green men" turn up, armed and equipped. So, the key questions to ask are:
What were the orders and the guidance given to the separatists? What was their job? Were they given authority to shoot down planes? Was that something permitted or at least not forbidden by Russia?
What were the separatists' rules of engagement?
Were the politicians back in Russia aware of the separatists' capabilities?
What kinds of leverage does Russia have over the separatists? Can they reward good behavior and punish bad behavior?
Does Russia have agents on the ground operating within the separatists' organizations?
So far, we do not know the answers to most of these questions. To be clear, the rebels in this area had been shooting down Ukrainian planes. Yesterday's attack was only new in the sense that the rebels shot at the wrong plane. So, Russian officials certainly knew that the airspace over eastern Ukraine was a dangerous place, and we now have some stories suggesting that Russia, unlike the European airline authorities, was re-directing planes away from this area. Thus, it is very, very likely that Mr. Putin knew of the use of anti-aircraft weaponry by the separatists.
Why allow or condone separatist attacks on Ukrainian aircraft? In recent weeks, the separatists were losing on the ground. Their best way to impose costs on Ukraine has been to shoot down aircraft – helicopters, transport aircraft, even fighter planes. Mr. Putin's moves have been inconsistent over the past few weeks, but the continued use of anti-aircraft weapons by the separatists seems to have been acceptable. How do we know this? Mr. Putin's government had not criticized the separatists for their previous attacks on aircraft. Indeed, the initial reports yesterday indicate that the rebels were in contact with Russian officers shortly after the shootdown to report their activities. So, the best inference we can make right now was that the separatist anti-aircraft attacks were well within Russia's expectations. The shooting down of the Malaysian airliner was most likely a mistake by those who had been authorized to attack Ukrainian aircraft.
This leads to the advantage of using proxies. Russia can deny responsibility and has done so, blaming Ukraine for having a crisis where this stuff can happen. It is not clear how plausible the deniability has to be to serve the government. If it becomes even clearer that the separatists in Ukraine were responsible, Mr. Putin can simply deny that he has any control over these forces, that it is not his mistake but one made by those on the ground.
Such denials will be more problematic if we can trace the weapon used in this attack back to Russia or if we can get further confirmation of the tight relationship between those who fired the weapon and Russian officers in the region.
Relying on proxies is always a dangerous game, as the U.S. has discovered repeatedly (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so on). The advantage of seeming to have less control over the various actors is also a disadvantage because you actually have less control. This strategy, as we found out yesterday, is not just dangerous for politicians and for those living in the contested territories but for those flying above it.