Here we go again with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leveraging a tragedy to make another "strong case" based on limited evidence. We have already seen this in the case of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and chemical weapons. Now it's Russian President Vladimir Putin's turn for the global smear treatment.
Presumably we're supposed to rush to adopt the notion that Russia's fingerprints are all over last week's downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine -- just as we were supposed to buy into Kerry's story last year about the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons against his own people. That rhetoric almost ended up serving as a pretext for U.S. military action, and it would have if Putin hadn't stepped in and offered to babysit Assad and oversee the removal of potential chemical threats.
The parallels in Kerry's rhetoric on Ukraine and Syria are remarkable. In the wake of last August's chemical weapons attack in Syria, Kerry said Assad's responsibility was "undeniable" and warned of an "informed response" by the U.S. that teetered on the brink of military action. Meanwhile, Putin noted that there was no actual evidence to back up Kerry's claim.
A subsequent United Nations report failed to pin any blame on Assad, but the narrative had already been entrenched. Face-saving headlines persisted in the mass media, attempting to reconcile the overwhelming speculation that had been peddled with the contradictory report findings (example from the New York Times: "Forensic Details in U.N. Report Point to Assad's Use of Gas").
Today it's Putin's turn to be subjected to a smear campaign designed to incite global outrage in the absence of hard evidence. And Kerry is once again front and center in the role of narrative salesman, pushing a rush to judgment. This time, Kerry is citing videos that were released by new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office and are of debatable validity. On the CBS show "Face the Nation," Kerry cited one as showing a missile launcher, like the one that allegedly took down Flight MH17, moving from Ukraine into Russia. Presumably, this is supposed to implicate Russia as a state sponsor of the rebels, if not the attack itself. Other observers have since argued that the "evidence" actually shows the weaponry moving through a Kiev-controlled town many miles from the Russian border.
If separatist rebels in Ukraine are getting major military support from Russia, it would come as news to the separatists themselves. Rebel commander Igor Strelkov is a Russian military and intelligence veteran who cut his teeth fighting in other anti-Russian insurgencies. Kerry claims that Strelkov bragged on social media about shooting down a plane (hence further proof of Russia's involvement). And yet the New York Times describes Strelkov as a rogue operator "openly critical of Moscow for failing to provide more aid to the rebels" -- which flies in the face of the notion that the Kremlin has this guy on a short leash, let alone that Putin pulls his strings.
Separatists can be tricky to understand. On the surface, they appear to be fighting for their nation of allegiance. But more than anything, they're fighting against a nation they view as oppressive or threatening, using patriotism as a convenient rallying cry.
For example, as a Canadian by birth, I've always understood that the separatist movement in the Canadian province of Quebec was more about being anti-Canadian federal government rather than pro-France. A radical Quebec separatist group even stated this in its manifesto: "We have had enough of promises of work and prosperity. When in fact we will always be the diligent servants and bootlickers of the big shots ... we will be slaves until Quebecers, all of us, have used every means, including dynamite and guns, to drive out these big bosses of the economy and of politics, who will stoop to any action, however base, the better to screw us."
Much like Putin has offered moral encouragement to those who opposed the unelected post-coup regime in Kiev (rhetoric that he has publicly dialed back since the election of a new Ukrainian president), French President Charles de Gaulle visited Quebec in 1967 to shout the separatist slogan "Vive le Quebec libre!" ("Long live free Quebec!") in a public appearance. Canada didn't subsequently hold France or de Gaulle responsible for inciting terrorism when morally empowered Quebec separatists bombed the Montreal stock exchange, kidnapped a British diplomat and murdered the provincial labor minister -- even after de Gaulle called Canadian Minster of Justice Pierre Trudeau (who was soon to become prime minister) "the enemy of the French entity in Canada."
There were no calls at the time for the U.S. to assist in quelling the terrorist insurgency right on its own border with Canada by making France and de Gaulle international pariahs. Nor should there be any rush to do the same with Putin. Both the evidence and the dynamics of the situation are far more complex than any torqued narrative peddled by political figures might suggest.