A Week of Agony...From Eastern Ukraine to the Gaza Strip

July 20, 2014

New York (July 20)  There are times when the endless crises and conflicts of our times reach such paroxysms of senseless tragedy that the world cries out for a halt.

The strife in eastern Ukraine made little sense even before it brought down a civilian jetliner, taking the lives of 298 passengers and crew members with no connection whatsoever to the fight. The outcry was immediate, and the bulk of it was focused on Russia for its support — denied but obvious — for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

According to American officials, the Malaysia Airlines jetliner, Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down by a missile fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, and the rebels had previously bragged about capturing a missile battery from the Ukrainian Army.

The rebels and Russia denied responsibility. But for American and European leaders, the ultimate culprit was the vendetta Russia has waged against Ukraine by sanctioning the flow of men and arms to rebellious areas.

In a tough statement on Friday, President Obama stopped just short of putting responsibility at the feet of President Vladimir V. Putin. It was not by chance, Mr. Obama said, that the insurgents were well armed: “That is happening because of Russian support.”

The tumult over Ukraine coincided with an acute escalation of the 10-day duel between Hamas and Israel as Israeli tanks churned into Gaza to hunt down militants raining rockets on Israel. There was a dismal familiarity to the images of destruction and bloodshed, and the terrible sense that this was what Hamas had intended to provoke all along, and Israel was once again unable to avoid.

But the downing of the Malaysian jetliner, after another Malaysian plane had gone missing, overshadowed the Middle Eastern drama.

A day before the plane was shot down, the United States had sharpened sanctions against Russia, and Europe had followed suit with milder measures, both charging that despite conciliatory statements and gestures, Mr. Putin was continuing to fan the flames in eastern Ukraine. Russian markets promptly took a tumble.

Mr. Putin’s initial reaction was a predictable claim that the United States was entirely to blame for the “fratricidal war” in Ukraine, and that sanctions would primarily hurt Americans. That has been Mr. Putin’s line ever since he orchestrated the annexation of Crimea in February — that Russia is the victim of an aggressive and unjust American foreign policy intended to “contain” Russia, a deliberate echo of America’s Cold War policy of “containment.”

Yet while the annexation of Crimea and the pique over real or perceived humiliations could be understood, even if not justified, it has been harder to understand why Mr. Putin has persisted in supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine for so long. He has shown no intention of annexing the eastern regions, yet he appears intent on keeping the flames burning with ever more casualties and dangers, and at ever higher costs to the Russian economy.

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One goal is clearly to ensure that Russia’s allies gain control over the provinces adjacent to Russia. Another is to demonstrate to the West that Russia will resist any new attempt to infringe on what Russians perceive as their sphere of influence. There is also a political advantage to these actions: the tough assertion of Russian interests, and the claim that he is standing up to America, have given Mr. Putin a strong political boost at home, where his fortunes had been flagging.

In any case, Mr. Putin has deemed it in his interest to sustain the crisis instead of seeking to consolidate whatever gains he expects at the negotiating table. Until now.

The destruction of the Malaysian airliner abruptly changes the calculation. If it is confirmed that the jet was shot down by insurgents, Mr. Putin will be likely to find himself isolated globally and forced to cut the rebels loose. And if he fails to do so now, the possibility of a far more severe escalation of sanctions from an outraged Europe becomes much greater. As Mr. Obama put it, “We don’t have time for propaganda, we don’t have time for games.”

Israel Against Hamas

In sharp contrast to the utterly unexpected twist in the Ukrainian story, the events in Israel and Gaza seemed to follow a well-practiced choreography: Palestinian provocations, powerful Israeli retaliation, fierce condemnation of Israel for the inevitably disproportionate casualties. As of Friday, the death toll in recent fighting stood at more than 270 Palestinians, many of them civilians, and two Israelis.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, a veteran of many such clashes, seemed to anticipate the backlash in remarks to a special cabinet meeting on Friday, made public by his office. The army had no choice but to enter Gaza to close off tunnels the Hamas militants were using to sneak into Israel, he said.

“I know that in such campaigns, global public opinion always receives a distorted picture of the campaign,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “This is unavoidable. But, unlike in the past, this time there are many in the international community who understand that it is Hamas — and Hamas alone — that is responsible for the victims. This is important for the state of Israel.”

From the White House, Mr. Obama said he had spoken by telephone to Mr. Netanyahu to reaffirm his “strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself,” but also to express concern “about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life.”

In its first day, the Israeli offensive seemed to operate near the borders of Gaza, apparently targeting the Hamas tunnels. But Mr. Netanyahu said he had ordered the military to “prepare for the possibility of significantly widening the ground operation.”

Source:  NY Times

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