UNITED NATIONS -- Russia wants to make sure Ukraine does not float westward and has sent in its own troops when the separatists could not handle it. But will Moscow support the rebels' call for independence in the eastern industrial heartland?
Despite many denials by Moscow, evidence had mounted daily that Russia had sent fighters and weaponry to the rebels who fear they are not getting fair treatment from the Kiev government.
They were called "volunteers" but US Ambassador Samantha Power noted that "the armored Russian military vehicle (the volunteer) drives there is not his personal car."
Most Russian forces have withdrawn recently but have amassed at the border amid a shaky cease-fire declared on September 5.
Since fighting began in April, the conflict has claimed at least 3,500 lives. On Sept. 20, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and the rebels signed another agreement that would require both sides to remove all heavy artillery from the frontline and create a buffer zone that would allow the cease-fire to be enforced in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Lavrov blasts NATO
In Moscow's view, the pro-Western rebellion in Kiev was a challenge after decades of NATO expansion to Russia's border and apprehension that Ukraine may join the Western alliance, starting with European Union ties. The deal with the European Union has now been delayed.
"NATO expansion to the East continued in spite of the promises to the contrary given earlier," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the UN General Assembly in a tough speech. "The Russian proposal to draft the European Security Treaty was rejected."
The Western alliance was unable "to change the genetic code it embedded during the Cold War," said Lavrov, a skilled diplomat and a former UN ambassador for a decade.
Moldova II or...?
What is the end goal? Total occupation of Ukraine is doubtful as it would result in a civil war and an economic collapse, which is already underway with oligarchs still functioning despite the ouster of the corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovich. Or is a land link to Crimea the objective?
But the example of neighboring Moldova may not be far fetched.
Separatists with the help of Russian "volunteers" succeeded in declaring independence for Moldova's eastern Transnistria region, recognized as a separate nation by no one. But it certainly weakened Moldova.
Ukraine has offered considerable autonomy to the eastern provinces but not independence as the separatists wanted. Russia has called it is a good first step but the main political disputes are yet to come.
Many of the separatists are true believers that Russia is their savior against the alleged "fascist" government of Kiev. Others are thugs who captured and marched through the streets abused Ukrainian government soldiers. They encouraged passerbys to pelt and bruise a pro-Kiev woman in the streets.
The separatists have taken on a life of their own. Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of President Vladimir Putin: "I believe he does have some leverage, but I'm not at all convinced that he can get them to back off, because this is not a regular army. I think that he has some ability, but I wouldn't bet on him being able to control them."
President Obama in his address said Russia's action in the Ukraine challenged the post Cold War order, and operated under the rule of "might makes right.
"Russia poured arms into Eastern Ukraine, fueling violent separatists and a conflict that has killed thousands. When a civilian airliner was shot down from areas that these proxies controlled, they refused to allow access to the crash for days. When Ukraine started to reassert control over its territory, Russia gave up the pretense of merely supporting the separatists, and moved troops across the border."
He offered to lift sanctions, which so far have not had a severe impact, if the cease-fire and subsequent negations were successful.
And the plane crash?
The bottom line for most of the members of the UN Security Council was the state of the crash scene, where Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot out of the sky on July 17, killing 298 passengers and crew. Some 193 were Dutch citizens.
Landing in a pro-Russian separatist area of Eastern Ukraine, some people poked among the ruins and looted valuables. Four days after the crash, bodies were removed to refrigerated railroad cars (where the cooling broke down for several hours). The railroad cars rolled to Ukrainian territory controlled by Kiev and then to the Netherlands.
At first Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans told the Council, "The last couple of days we have received very disturbing reports of bodies being moved about and looted for their possessions," adding "It must be unbearable first to lose your husband and then to have to fear that some thug might steal his wedding ring from his remains. Later he said some people in the area had been very helpful, including salvaging the black boxes.
Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin admitted some things were "done wrong" but said that the separatists were stunned by the crash. "The thing fell on their heads," he told reporters. "They did not have the experienced people and were taken aback."
All 298 passengers and crew died. They include 193 Dutch (including one dual Netherlands/U.S. citizen), 43 Malaysians (including 15 crewmembers and two infants), 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, 10 Britons (including one dual U.K./South Africa citizen), four Germans, four Belgians, three Filipinos, one Canadian and one New Zealander, according to the flight manifest released by Malaysia Airlines. There were 80 children aboard.
When inspectors from various countries came back to the crash site, Ukraine started an offensive to dislodge the separatists, which it called "terrorists," from public buildings, frightening residents and delaying investigations further. But during lulls in the fighting, the nations who had lost citizens, complained of harassment by the separatists.
Conspiracy or stupidity?
US officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said there was a "solid case" that a SA-11 missile, known as a Buk - was fired from eastern Ukraine under "conditions the Russians helped create". Russia contends Ukraine was responsible and should not have allowed a civilian airliner to fly over the eastern provinces.
Evidence included images purportedly showing a surface-to-air missile launcher in the area, analysis of voice recordings of pro-Russian rebels apparently admitting bringing the airliner down,
The most likely theory is that the separatists thought the aircraft was a Ukrainian military plane and not a passenger airliner. Such sloppiness is not limited to the anti-Kiev rebels.
For example, in July 1988, the U.S. Navy shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 aboard. The USS Vincennes mistook it for a fighter plane. Then in 1983 Korean Airline fight 007 was shot down by Soviet aircraft after it veered off its course and flew into Russian airspace over some military installations. It was apparently mistaken for U.S. reconnaissance flights. All 269 people were killed.
The Netherlands is leading the investigation for the crash. Russia has several times questioned its slow pace and said the United Nations should take over. But no other U.N. Security Council member agreed.
Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs told the Security Council that the world body was confident that the Dutch-led probe was being handled properly.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon insists that only diplomacy and negotiations can solve the Ukraine crisis. But at this stage diplomacy will come only after all fighting stops and the rebels are subdued.
In the long run, Russia and the United States will have to come to some modus vivendi, either over Iran or over the battle against ISIS and other flipped-out Jihadists. Otherwise the whiffs of Cold War rhetoric will multiply.