Empiricism and the Ukraine Crisis

Who shot down the Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine? Given the technology required to strike a commercial airline flying at high altitude, we may know the answer soon enough.

But finding out who did this is only half the struggle.

One of the key distinguishing features of the conflict in Ukraine is that the USA and Russia have not been able to agree to a simple set of facts about the crisis. There is an empirical reality. But then there is the reality as perceived in Washington and Moscow–which may or may not overlap with the empirical reality.

In the coming hours and days, if evidence emerges that pro-Russian, separatist militants shot down this plane, Moscow will face a huge inflection point: it can either agree to the basic set of facts about who bears responsibility for the incident or it can present an alternative thesis. If it choses the former, then it may use this tragedy as a pretext to reign in separatist groups. That, in turn, could offer a pathway to de-escalation and perhaps eventually a peace agreement. If it choses the latter, we can expect further escalation of the conflict.

In the coming days pay close attention to how Moscow decides to interpret the facts on the ground. If it’s at odds with the USA, Ukraine, and/or empiricism we can assume that the conflict will get much worse.

Bonus Content. Here’s Carnegie Endowment President Jessica Tuchman Matthews offering some prescient analysis of the conflict in Ukraine