The serial provocations and diplomatic blunders that have hastened Ukraine's slide into chaos and misery took a still more tragic turn last week when a commercial airliner carrying 298 passengers and crew was downed over eastern Ukraine.
For now, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears bewildered. He seems suddenly smaller and less certain, having lost his stride for the first time since late February when the Maidan protesters ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from office and replaced him with an anti-Russian government. Since March, Putin had called the shots, first annexing Crimea and then turning Ukraine's eastern provinces into an ungovernable mess.
His plans began to sour even before the jetliner fell from the sky, when a brutal government offensive — one that has taken civilian casualties and produced thousands of refugees — put the rebels into retreat. Kiev called off a brief truce on July 1 to press its advantage, as the rebels prepared for what appeared to be a last stand in Donetsk.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 had the misfortune of entering the airspace above that tinderbox. Russian denial of rebel involvement in downing the airliner at least shows its recognition of the act's utter inhumanity. And although separatist culpability has not been conclusively established, the alternative explanations offered by the Russians range from the implausible (the plane was felled by a Ukrainian fighter jet) to the risible (the bodies from the Malaysia Airlines jet that went missing four months ago were dumped into rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine).
In persisting in such denials while delaying the work of international investigators and tampering with the wreckage, Russia risks provoking the Europeans to engage in the sorts of sector sanctions that President Obama has been urging. The threat of such sanctions may win Putin's acquiescence, at least in the near term, given the brittleness of Russia's economy. But it might also provoke a further cycle of belligerence, the very dynamic that has reduced Ukraine to this tragic state.
It is time for both sides to change their focus. Ours has been on Putin. Our hunger to make him pay a price and to turn him into a pariah has become an obsession, an end in itself. Putin is a tyrant who practices oppression at home and aggression abroad. But it's not about him. Nor is it about Obama, for whom all politics is personal.
Our focus instead should be on Ukraine — its people, its institutions, its viability. Ukraine has not yet recovered from World War I or from Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin's depredations or from the ravages of World War II, the dead hand of Soviet tyranny, or the succession of kleptocratic governments that followed the Soviet Union's collapse. Its economy is the region's worst, with the per capita GDP of some of its western oblasts ranking below that of Nigeria and Sudan. Months of bloodshed have worsened conditions, leading the International Monetary Fund to project that Ukraine's economy will shrink by an estimated 6.5 percent this year.
The people of eastern Ukraine have not benefited either from Russia's intervention or the West's efforts to bring Putin to heel. A poll taken last spring by the Kyiv Institute of Sociology found that Ukraine's Russian speakers reject the West's contention that the coup that overthrew Yanukovych last February was legitimate. But neither do they embrace Putin's designs on eastern Ukraine or believe that he is looking out for their well-being.
If the poll results are accurate, the Ukrainian people appear to be more sensible and grounded than Putin, Obama or the leaders of Western Europe. Most of them want peace, stability and the opportunity to begin the process of economic, cultural and political restoration.
They have instead gotten two decades of corrosive competition between Russia and the West for the allegiance of a country that cannot survive without assistance from the West and trade with Russia. Ukraine is not a prize to be won. The West must accept that Ukraine requires a constructive relationship with Russia; Russia must accept that Ukraine needs a similarly constructive relationship with the European Union.
For years, East and West have enabled Ukraine's instability, helping to bring about its current parlous condition. So long as the country's ethnic factions can appeal to their respective allies in Europe or Russia for handouts and military backing, they have little motivation to accept adverse election results or take responsibility for mending their economy.
It is time that Russia and the West stop vying over Ukraine and instead work together to resolve its political crisis and promote its economic renewal. That would mark a big change in policy for both sides, one that seems highly improbable. Putin and Western leaders appear committed to their testosterone-infused mission to establish dominance.
Last Thursday's carnage offers them an opportunity to pause and reflect on the consequences of their confrontational policies. Perhaps they will recognize that staying the course will only produce more destruction and desolation.
Badger was formerly deputy assistant to the president for legislative affairs, where he helped formulate the George W. Bush administration's policy and legislative strategy.