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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 7/28/14

Flight MH17: Europeans Play Pig in the Middle

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Cross-posted from Reader Supported News

EU targets top Russian officials in new sanctions

By *Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

As the 28-nation Europe Union (EU) moves to impose new sanctions on Russia over the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in Eastern Ukraine, many countries on this side of the Atlantic find themselves caught in the growing crossfire between Washington and Moscow.

They obviously lean much closer to the US than to Russia, and continue to play a vigorous role in backing the Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev. They are also willing, in the words of Germany's Social Democratic foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to "increase the pressure" on Russia. But make no mistake, EU leaders like Germany's Angela Merkel and her colleagues in France, Spain, and Italy are not signing up for what many in Washington and the mainstream media now celebrate as Cold War II.

The reluctance falls far short of a major rift in the Western alliance or of a significant victory for Russian president Vladimir Putin. But with continuing reverberations from Edward Snowden's revelations of US spying on its European allies, the strains persist, and they do so even after the anti-Russian media blitz following the shooting down of a civilian aircraft with the loss of as many as 298 lives, most of them European.

In other words, the tragic end of MH17 has not become the game changer that Washington proclaimed it to be. What this might mean for the future remains unclear, but the continuing resistance of many Europeans to join a full-fledged, Washington-led Cold War crusade needs to temper any serious global perspective.

Take a close and nuanced look at the convoluted stance toward Russia that the Europeans are formalizing this week with grudging "attaboys" from Washington. According to Reuters and the Financial Times, the EU will freeze the assets of and ban travel by high-ranking Russians, including the heads of Moscow's security and foreign intelligence services. The Europeans blame these officials for threatening Ukraine's sovereignty and national integrity by annexing Crimea and by backing -- both openly and covertly -- the dwindling pro-Russian die-hards fighting a losing civil war in Eastern Ukraine.

Through NATO, the Europeans have backed the nationalist government in Kiev in overwhelming the insurgents with sustained air and ground attacks that began in April.

The asset freezes and visa bans also target insurgent leaders, whom the Europeans blame for shooting down the Malaysian airliner with Soviet-era Buk or possibly more powerful S-300 surface-to-air missiles. Pro-Russian fighters and the Ukrainian army both had access to such weapons, though both sides appear to have lacked sufficient training to identify targets and fire the missiles properly.

Judging from accounts in well-placed media like The Economist, the European leaders have largely based their accusations against the pro-Russians on unsubstantiated claims from US and Ukrainian intelligence. These include satellite photos that Washington has not made public and audio recordings that the Ukrainian SBU says are between pro-Russian insurgents and Russian intelligence officers.

Moscow disputes all this and its state-owned Voice of Russia has specifically charged that the Ukrainians spliced together the audio from previous recordings. "The audio recording is not an integral file and is made of several fragments," sound and voice analyst Nickolai Popov told VOR. An independent international investigation could easily confirm or reject Popov's claim, but while the Europeans seem unlikely to pursue such a course on their own, EU leaders sound less gung-ho about Washington and Kiev's claims and more open to hearing Russia's rebuttal than is the Obama administration.

Like Washington, the EU will stop short of directly penalizing Putin, hoping they can entice, cajole, or force him to strike a bargain by turning his wealthy supporters against him. But, far more than Washington, the Europeans appear to believe that some sort of rapprochement is possible. They also see it as in the best interest of the Ukrainian oligarchs, whom they helped bring to power in Kiev with an aggressiveness that most Americans would not expect of the supposedly milquetoast Europeans. The wonderfully acerbic Peter Hitchens, a right-wing curmudgeon and brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, nailed the point in London's Sunday Mail.

"The aggressor was the European Union, which rivals China as the world's most expansionist power, swallowing countries the way performing seals swallow fish (16 gulped down since 1995)," he wrote. "Ignoring repeated and increasingly urgent warnings from Moscow, the EU -- backed by the USA -- sought to bring Ukraine into its orbit. It did so through violence and illegality, an armed mob and the overthrow of an elected president."

(For supporting evidence, see my "Meet the Americans Who Put Together the Coup in Kiev," Part I and Part II, and specifically note the key financial contributions from the Dutch and British embassies in Kiev and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.)

Under mounting pressure from Washington that began well before the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner, the Europeans have agreed to curtail Russian access to arms, high-tech goods, and capital markets on which the former Soviet economy now relies. But these sector-wide sanctions will apply only to future contracts, leaving the French free to complete the sale of two Mistral-class helicopter attack ships to the Russian Navy. Nor will they disturb too much of Germany's lucrative trade with Russia or Europe's continuing dependence on Russian natural gas.

If all this seems a classic of diplomatic ingenuity, it is, guaranteeing that Washington will continue to push the Europeans, who will continue to play Pig in the Middle.

*A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."

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