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Is Russia Losing Control over the Ukrainian Separatists?

This is a guest post by Milos Popovic, a PhD student at the International Relations and European Studies Department at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. 

A recent post by a Russian-backed separatist leader Igor Girkin claiming credit for shooting down the Malaysian airline MH17 had circulated the Internet before it was removed. The separatists now deny their involvement arguing that they don’t have the capabilities to shoot down a plane at 10,000 meters (reportedly, the altitude of MH17). The evidence suggests that the plane was hit by the surface-to-air BUK missile system, which can launch missiles up to an altitude of 22,000 meters. Both the Russian and Ukrainian military have this hardware, but the two countries adamantly reject their involvement. Allegedly, a group of AP journalists have encountered a launcher similar to the BUK system near the town of Snizhne, which is under the rebel control. While Russia doesn’t deny its military support to the separatists, it denies the delivery of the BUK to its client. If it turns out that the Ukrainian rebels carried out the attack against Moscow’s directions, it will be a major source of embarrassment for Russia, their main supporter.

However, it won’t be the first time that a proxy embarrassed its sponsor. For instance, the Palestinian leftist groups have abducted foreign tourists in the late 1960s against the interests of their Arab sponsors. The Abu Nidal Organization embarrassed Syria when it claimed the responsibility for IRA’s assassination attempt against the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. During the Yugoslav wars, the Bosnian Serb leadership outraged their sponsor, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, when they refused to accept the Vance-Owen Plan. In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers first refused a peace agreement brokered by their sponsor India, and then turn their guns against the Indian peacekeeping corps.

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