West not blameless in Flight 17 disaster over Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin backs the eastern Ukrainian rebels who blasted a Malaysian Airlines flight carrying 300 innocents out of the sky. Putin supplied the rebels with the technology and the training — if not the actual personnel — that made this act of barbarism possible. Even if a Russian didn't directly fire the missile that led to the murders, and even if the murderers thought they were downing a Ukrainian military aircraft, and not a civilian aircraft, Russia is responsible for fostering the chaos that would inevitably lead to such a tragedy.

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All true. But by that standard, the EU and especially the U.S. are also to blame, maybe even more so. Over the better part of the last year, they orchestrated months of anarchy in Kiev's Independence Square that led to the violent overthrow of Ukraine's pro-Russian leader, which galvanized protest movements among the country's many pro-Russian sympathizers, which led Crimea to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, which led rebels to seize part of the country's east and which gave Putin fertile ground with which to exploit the ensuing mayhem.

Lesson for Western foreign policy amateurs: Don't prod the Russian bear without anticipating, and covering off, the consequences.

The chief prodder in the last year has been the U.S., under the aegis of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. As became evident from a phone conversation between her and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, the U.S. was deeply involved in the machinations that led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, deciding, for example, which of the various opposition leaders should and shouldn't accept a post in the government, how to get the U.N. on board, and when Vice President Biden should get involved behind the scenes to embolden the insurrection.

The phone conversation, believed to be leaked by the Russians in February, includes Nuland's now-notorious advice to "F--- the EU," a reference to the EU's reluctance to further enmesh itself in the protest movement. The EU's cold feet notwithstanding, Nuland was saying that the U.S. would press on by micromanaging an unconstitutional overthrow amid the escalating violence in Kiev's Independence Square.

American involvement in Ukraine's internal affairs is hardly new. As Nuland told the National Press Club in Washington on Dec. 13, 2013, the U.S. has spent $5 billion trying to turn Ukraine into a pro-Western democracy. Yet that effort has largely been a failure. Ukraine's GDP is at Third World levels — $3,900 per capita — disillusioning many with democracy. According to a Gallup poll taken last year, before the violence began, only 1 percent of Ukrainians were very satisfied, and only 11 percent were somewhat satisfied, with the way democracy was working in the country. In the west of Ukraine, only about half favored Western-style democracy; in the Russia-leaning eastern part of the country, only one-sixth did.

Despite the deep rifts in Ukrainian society, which alternates between electing corrupt pro-Western and corrupt pro-Russian leaders, and which at the time of this year's coup was led by a pro-Russian government, the EU and the U.S. decided to go for all the marbles by precipitating a showdown that, it hoped, would pull all Ukrainians into the EU and into NATO, thus presenting Russia with a fait accompli that would see the Western military alliance at its doorstep.

That fait accompli didn't happen. Instead, Ukraine lost Crimea, much of the country is in chaos, and hundreds of innocent air travelers are among the casualties.

Lawrence Solomon is a columnist with Canada's National Post and a policy analyst with Probe International. Email him at LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com and follow him @LSolomonTweets.