Once upon a time CIA Stations overseas received what was referred to as an “Operating Directive” which prioritized intelligence targets for the upcoming year based on their importance vis-à-vis national security. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, penetrating Moscow and preventing the KGB’s repaying the favor in kind loomed large as Russia and its allies represented the only genuine threat that could in fact destroy much of the United States. Today’s Russia retains much of that military capability but somehow the perception that you have to deal with what is important first has been lost on our policymakers, possibly due to a false impression inside the beltway that Moscow no longer matters.
A working relationship with Moscow that seeks to mitigate potential areas of conflict is not just important, it is essential. Russian willingness to cooperate with the west in key areas to include the Middle East is highly desirable in and of itself but the bottom line continues to be Moscow’s capability to go nuclear against Washington if it is backed into a corner. Unfortunately, U.S. administrations since Bill Clinton have done their best to do just that, placing Russia on the defensive by encroaching on its legitimate sphere of influence through the expansion of NATO. Washington’s meddling has also led to interfering in Russia’s domestic politics as part of a misguided policy of “democracy building” as well as second guessing its judiciary and imposing sanctions through the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012. The damage to relations has been aggravated by the ill-advised commentary from American politicians on the make, including Senator John McCain’s dismissal of Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.”
One should legitimately be concerned over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inflicting damage on his country’s fledgling democracy through fraud, corruption, media clampdowns and exploitation of a malleable legal system. One might also object to exactly how Russia asserted its interests using force against neighboring states Georgia and Ukraine. But that does not change the bottom line, which continues to be that functional relations between Moscow and Washington are a sine qua non. Russia’s domestic politics are none of our business and the alleged grievances of Georgia and Ukraine are undeniably a lot less purely attributable to Russian actions than the White House and Congress would have us believe, with U.S. interference in both countries clearly a major contributing factor to the resulting instability.
Assuming that one accepts that lessening bilateral tension over the Ukraine is a desirable objective, the White House might soon have a good opportunity to demonstrate that it is willing to deal fairly with the Russian leadership in Moscow. The Dutch Government’s Safety Board will in October make public its long awaited report detailing its assessment of last year’s downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 over Ukraine. The investigation was conducted with the cooperation of the Ukrainian and Malaysian authorities, but did not include a thorough survey of the crash site, which was and still is considered too dangerous. According to leaks of its conclusions, the report will admit that there is no conclusive evidence regarding who is responsible for the shoot down but it will nevertheless make a circumstantial case that the pro-Russian separatists are the most likely suspects in spite of the fact that there is no hard technical or intelligence related evidence supporting that judgment. Blaming the separatists will, by implication, also blame Moscow.
At this point, the United States, which together with other interested parties has been reviewing a copy of the report in draft, does not intend to present its own findings but will instead go along with the Dutch conclusions. Among former intelligence, military and Foreign Service officers there has been considerable discussion of the significance of Washington’s standing on the sidelines regarding the findings. To be sure, there are a number of rumors and allegations circulating relating to what is actually known or not know about the shoot down.
According to some sources, the U.S. intelligence community disagrees over the likelihood of the alleged Russian role and has suggested as much privately to the Dutch. Some analysts who have looked at all the considerable body of information that has been collected relating to the downing actually believe that the most likely candidate might well be the then governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch billionaire who is an Israeli-Ukrainian dual national. Kolomoisky is known to employ Israeli mercenaries as advisers and has personally organized and paid for militias fighting the Russian separatists. He would have been strongly motivated to create an incident that could plausibly be blamed on the Russians or their surrogates and he had the means to do so. The government in Kiev acting independently also had the resources and motive to shoot down the plane and blame it on Moscow.
The dominant narrative that is still circulating widely suggests that either a direct or enabling Russian role is a given based on the claimed origin of the Buk missile, technical analysis of the plume and trajectory, and the military units that were known to be in place or moving at the time. And there was also the apparent separatist bragging on communications intercepts about shooting down a transport plane. This was the explanation that surfaced shortly after the downing, that was heavily promoted by the Ukrainian government and the media and that has been much favored by the international punditry ever since.
The third option of how to explain the shoot down is, of course, the Dutch approach: we think it was the Russians but we can’t prove it. That is an easy choice to make as it really says nothing, which is possibly why it is being favored by the White House.
But if it is actually true that there has been considerable dissent on the findings, the tacit acceptance of a possibly unreliable and essentially unsustainable report by the White House will have significant impact on relations with Russia. It constitutes a disturbing rejection of possibly accurate intelligence analysis in favor of a politically safe alternative explanation. It recalls the politicization of intelligence that included Robert Gates’ Soviet assessments of the 1980s, John McLaughlin’s tergiversation regarding Iraq, and, most recently, Michael Morell’s over the top hyping of the threat posed by political Islam. It is a return to a Manichean view of the world as “them” and “us” with the implication that intelligence professionals are willing to restrain their dissent on an important issue if it serves to advance the current war of words with Russia.
To be sure, deep sixing intelligence assessments that contradict policies that the White House is intent on pursuing anyway buys congenial access to the President and his advisers but it comes at the cost of diminishing the ability of the intelligence community to provide objective and reliable information in a timely fashion, which is at least in theory why it exists at all. Producing honest intelligence will, on the contrary, strengthen both the reputations and credibility of all involved.
If Russia is indeed to blame for the airplane shoot down it should be held accountable, but it is up to the U.S. government to put its cards on the table and be clear about what it does and does not know. The original claims that Russia was involved were based on snap judgments based on bits of information that had been obtained immediately after the event, little of which has been subsequently corroborated through either satellite imagery or electronic and signal intercepts. Since that time the German BND intelligence service has expressed its doubts that the missile used in the shoot down could have been supplied by Russia and has also claimed that photos provided by the Ukrainian government as part of the investigation had been “doctored.” There have also been reports regarding a Ukrainian fighter plane being in the area of the airliner as well as the nearby presence of Ukrainian ground to air missile units. Reported conversations among separatist claiming credit were eventually determined to be composite fakes produced by the Ukrainian intelligence services. Presumably U.S. intelligence has also taken a long and hard look at all the evidence or lack thereof but it is being quiet regarding what it has determined.
It is important to get this right because the potential damage goes far beyond the role of intelligence or even who might have been responsible for the downing of an airliner one year ago. As the relationship with Russia is of critical importance and should be regarded as the number one national security issue for the United States, it is essential that the Dutch conclusions be aggressively challenged if there is even the slightest possibility that Russia is blameless.
One does not have to be a fan of Vladimir Putin to appreciate that the nearly continuous efforts being promoted within mostly neoconservative circles to both delegitimize and confront him and his regime do not serve any conceivable American national interest. In an Independence Day phone call to President Obama, President Putin called for a working relationship with the United States based on “equality and respect,” which should, under the circumstances, be a given. Americans have been lied into intervention and war more than once over the past fifteen years and it should be clear to all that any contrived crisis based on an erroneous conclusion regarding a shot down airliner that develops into an armed conflict with Russia will have unimaginable consequences. A skeptical American public and international community must demand that any MH-17 report should reflect a full assessment, to include any dissent from its conclusions registered by the United States intelligence community. Any information at variance with the conventional view, particularly anything that suggests that there might be other interested parties who had both the means and compelling interest to shoot down a civilian airliner, must become a part of the discussion.