Could The Conflict In Ukraine Turn Into A Regional War?

Nearly 300 people died after a Malaysian Airlines plane crashed near the Russian-Ukrainian border. European security expert F. Stephen Larrabee explains what this might mean for the volatile region.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to the other international hotspot that's in the news. That's the ongoing issue in Ukraine - or power struggle in Ukraine. The conflict went back to the top of the headlines when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukrainian territory on Thursday. Pro-Russian rebels are in control of the area and are widely suspected of shooting down the plane. International officials have accused the separatists of interfering with the search, and the investigation at the crash site and the incident has put Russian President Vladimir Putin, who's backed the movement, on the defensive. We wanted to know more about this, so we've have called upon F. Stephen Larrabee, Distinguished Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation. Welcome to you as well. Thank you so much for joining us.

F. STEPHEN LARRABEE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Just tell us, if you would, the latest about what Russian President Vladimir Putin's stance is here. We understand that he has called for a cease-fire between the rebels and Ukrainian government, but do we - is that - does he really mean it?

LARRABEE: Well, it's very hard to tell. The most important fact is that his image has been very badly damaged because the United States and Ukrainians' government have what seems to be overwhelming circumstantial evidence that the Russians in fact supplied the missile, and trained the secessionists to fire it. So that he's certainly seen as being co-culpable.

MARTIN: What would have been the motivation for this?

LARRABEE: Well, it goes back to basically, November of last year when the Ukrainian government wanted to sign a trade-in and association agreement with the EU. President Putin put a lot of pressure on then president of Ukraine Yanukovych, not to sign it. At the last second he withdrew his signature, which then started a number of protests. The protests spiraled, and then he was forced - Yanukovych was forced to resign. And since then, we've had this situation where the Russians have used a group of secessionists on the territory of Ukraine. Most of these secessionists however, have Russian citizenship, and have been fighting in various conflicts on Russian territory. So it's really a pro-Russian group led by Russians.

MARTIN: What would have been the motivation though, for bringing down that airliner?

LARRABEE: Well, they did - they thought - as best one can tell, the secessionists thought that they had shot down a Ukrainian government transport plane. And they bragged about it, but then they realized afterwards that in fact it'd been a commercial airliner. And all the bravado and statements were taken off the social media when they realized that's what they'd done.

MARTIN: Does it appear that Russian President Putin have - does it appear that he has any leverage or influence with this group?

LARRABEE: He has a lot of influence. He's trained, financed, and supported the group. So he - if he wanted it to go away, he could make it go away tomorrow. Or, you know, at 2 o'clock today - anytime.

MARTIN: What should then we - what conclusion should we then draw from what we're hearing so far about the fact that these rebels, these separatists are interfering with international monitors who are trying to investigate the crash? What conclusions we draw from that?

LARRABEE: Well, it makes it look as if they have something to hide, which by all circumstantial evidence seems to be the case. But we have to wait to see what an international, independent inquiry will come up with to be sure.

MARTIN: Are there any - is there any international pressure that could be brought to bear here? We already know the relations between the U.S. and Russia are quite frayed right now - that they're kind of banning each other's individuals and putting various restrictions on key players in each government and so forth. Is there - does any individual have - I guess what the question is what should we be looking for next to see what direction this conflict will go to?

LARRABEE: Oh, whatever Putin does. The most important thing would be if he would disown the rebels and cut off their supply of weapons and other assistance, particularly these surface-to-air missiles.

MARTIN: Is there any indication he's so inclined and what would make him do that? What are the levers that would be influential with him?

LARRABEE: Public opinion, basically, because it now seems that, whether he's guilty or not, in the eyes of most of the public, they think that he's responsible for this. Since he trained - not he personally - but his government trained and financed the rebels and provided them with the rocket - or the missile that apparently downed the plane.

MARTIN: Can I ask you for your personal opinion, before we let you go? What's your concern about this escalating into a conflict beyond the region? Do you have concerns about that?

LARRABEE: Well, I don't know whether it will go beyond the region. But it certainly has very destabilizing aspects. And the fact is that this secession, as so-called, the separatists are a ragtag mercenary army financed by Russia - which is done that clandestinely. And now we see the danger - that this could escalate very much into, maybe, a regional war, but I don't think anything beyond that. But, still...

MARTIN: I understand. Thank you so much. Stephen Larrabee is the Distinguished Chair in European Security for RAND Corporation. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Mr. Larrabee, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LARRABEE: Thank you.

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