Winnipeg Free Press | 22Jul2014 | Oksana Bashuk Hepburn

Time for West to stand up against Russian president

The downing of the Malaysian passenger plane over part of Ukraine controlled by Russia-led terrorists is a dire lesson for the world: Vladimir Putin kills those in his way.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was in his way. Although the land-to-air missile was meant to murder Ukrainians flying supplies to defend their country from Putin's terrorists, the premeditated murder of people -- be they Ukrainians or members of the other 15 nationalities on the plane -- is that: murder.

Nothing says this more eloquently than a heart-wrenching photo of an infant lying in an endless Ukrainian fallow field: It literally fell out of the sky. What did it do to deserve this? The same question applies to the millions of southeastern Ukrainians terrorized, bombed, shot at, kidnapped, brutalized, raped, sodomized, dislocated, wounded or as dead as the 298 occupants of the plane.

This mendacity is the stuff of the vile comic book Joker determined to bring war and destruction to civilization. In reality, there's Putin, the rogue state leader orchestrating war where his crazed, primitive operatives play fast and loose with deadly weapons and real lives.

President Putin had his eyes fixed on Ukraine's air force. It has a long and noble tradition that includes the Sikorsky chopper and Sputnik. He wants to take it out -- last week three aircraft were downed -- before his new French-constructed Mistrals sail into the Black Sea to deliver pro-Russia forces lethal arms for an invasion of Ukraine's coastline from Odessa to Kherson. Russia's plan is to dominate the waters. That is why he took Crimea, and the Malaysian plane got in the way of the rest of the job.

The downing of Flight 17 moves Putin's criminality into the global arena. Now, the responsibility for punishing him falls on all states whose passengers were in the plane; on all of us. When a megalomaniacal state leader operates outside the law without commensurate punishment no one is safe; not Ukraine, nor a passenger plane, nor any of us. We must stop him.

Putin is breaking international law whichever way he turns. Having commanded the strike, his on-the-ground terrorists wipe out the evidence: the black box was in their hands; international investigators hampered; the site of the plane crash is burning; Russia's government sources alter the Wikipedia entry; and counter-accusations of a western plot dominate Russia's media. As if to provide the setting for further aggression in Ukraine, he blamed its defence from his terror as the cause. Meanwhile, his snipers shot up a passenger bus in downtown Luhansk, killing 20 people. When all else fails, he blames it on the CIA.

Surely the world's outrage will not take a back seat to its naiveté or best intentions to work with Russia. Surely it has become abundantly clear Putin is not like us. He does not operate by western standards respectful of law, truth and human decency. He lies, misinforms and covers up in the best of Soviet KGB traditions, which formed Colonel Putin's world view. His philosophy allows state-run media to rain propaganda on listeners to ensure a high popularity rating at home and Russian apologists abroad. Even CBC's respected As it Happens features those who promote a Putin-designed phoney separatism in Ukraine; the very reason for the needless bloodshed there and why the plane was downed.

There is some hope, however: Russia Today TV staff, like Sarah Firth, are leaving in protest as his propaganda turns into absurdity. His "commander-in-chief," the Russian special forces officer, Igor Gherkin (nom de guerre "Strelkov," meaning sniper) had this to say on his website about the victims of the land-to-air strike: The plane was carrying corpses!

So what now?

To date, Russia's crimes -- violation of sovereign territory, international treaties, war crimes -- far exceed the punishment. Western sanctions have been tepid. It took the downing of Flight 17 for Britain to cancel the sale of weapons to Russia. France has yet to cancel delivery of the Mistral assault ships aimed at securing Ukraine's Black Sea coast for Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perhaps Russia's staunchest ally, has yet to tell us where she stands.

This is unacceptable. Wisely, Canada has announced new sanctions and, most likely, others will follow. But Mr. Putin himself must be punished: He is the commander-in-chief of the mess. His name must top all sanction lists. He must be isolated, disinvited from international gatherings, shunned, and brought before an international court of justice. Russia must be voted out of the United Nations Security Council. Far-fetched? Not really, if there's a will.

To date there has been too little pain for Mr. Putin's crimes against humanity. If this does not happen, then all governments whose citizens were murdered are collaborators. And more. All of us watching Ukraine fight a David and Goliath battle for democracy and wanting to be more western, rather than Russian, need to ensure it gets our help. Otherwise, might is right, and that gets in everyone's way.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, a former director of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, is an opinion writer specializing in Ukraine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 22, 2014 A9