MH17: Russia’s Slipping Grip

By Konrad Putzier 

When Vladimir Putin first heard of flight MH17 crashing in Eastern Ukraine, he may well have buried his face in his hands.

Lost in all the justified anger against Moscow is the fact that last week’s downing of the Malaysian airlines flight with 295 people on board is also a disaster for Putin’s Ukraine policy. His plan to stealthily destabilize the country while avoiding tough Western sanctions has backfired. Putin’s involvement in Ukraine is now more exposed than ever, and Russia is on the brink of becoming a pariah state.

This foreign policy disaster (from Putin’s perspective) has been months in the making. While Western media liked to portray Putin as an evil mastermind who controls Ukraine’s crisis at will, he has in fact long been in over his head.

Following Russia’s invasion of Crimea in February, sending troops into Eastern Ukraine to “protect” its Russian speakers seemed like the next logical step. But Putin, mindful of the Western sanctions that would likely follow, chose a strategy that seemed more cunning at first sight. Russia would send “volunteers” into the Ukraine and arm local militias, while publicly denying involvement.

This, Putin likely reckoned, would let him achieve his primary goals: keep Eastern Ukraine under Russian influence, prevent Ukraine from joining NATO or EU, punish Kiev’s elected government for its recalcitrance, and show other post-Soviet republics that any move away from Moscow is a bad idea. All the while, he would avoid far-reaching Western sanctions.

And for a while, it seemed to work. Ukraine’s army has been unable to rout increasingly well-equipped rebels, while Western governments have been slow to tighten the screws on Russia following the initial round of sanctions imposed after the Crimean invasion.

But a closer look revealed that trouble was brewing for Putin. Fighting a proxy war through militias meant Russia could deny involvement, but it had a significant disadvantage. While Putin can control his own army, he only had limited sway over the bands of gangsters, Cossacks, religious extremists, and Russian nationalists with their different goals and allegiances active in Eastern Ukraine.

Putin’s inability to control the erratic behavior of some militants has long been the loose wrench in his well-oiled war machine. Since the beginning of the war, groups of rebels have abducted OSCE(Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) observers and a Greek-Catholic priest reportedly told Jews to register their property, looted stores and banks, and tortured journalists – to name just a few of their transgressions.

As the militants grew more erratic and violent, Russia’s attempts to rein in became more and more desperate. When Putin called on the rebels to postpone a bogus referendum on independence in May, he was flatly ignored. When looting by local rebels in Donetsk got out of hand, militants from Russia felt compelled to forcefully remove them from public buildings in an attempt to restore order.

The violent, unprofessional behavior by certain rebels became a PR nightmare for Russia and played into Kiev’s hands, allowing it to portray the Russians as bloodthirsty bandits. The downing of MH17 – all evidence points to semi-trained rebels shooting down the passenger jet by mistake – was only the latest in a long line of misguided rebel actions.

The crash has led to an outcry in the West and public pressure will likely compel leaders to toughen sanctions against Russia as early as this week, if announcements by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron are any indication.

Tougher sanctions will be the exact outcome Putin tried to avoid with his Ukraine strategy in the first place. Russia’s economy – already in recession – will likely take another hit and a country that seemed on track to catch up with Western standards of living as late as 2008 is now under threat to become a stagnating pariah state like Iran.

This outcome must be especially painful for Putin because it is the result of his inability to control the rebels’ actions in Eastern Ukraine. If we know one thing about the secretive president, it’s that he hates not being in total control of things.

This makes the coming weeks very dangerous for Ukraine. As sticking with his failed strategy becomes less appealing by the day, Putin could well decide to send in troops control an increasingly messy civil war.

In devising a response to the downing of MH17, Western leaders must make sure they don’t push Putin towards invasion. They need to expand sanctions, but make it clear that far worse is to come if Putin sends his troops across the border. Moreover, NATO should refrain from any military support for Ukraine’s army, as Moscow would likely use this as a pretense to invade Ukraine in self-defense.

The trick will be to be to expand sanctions enough to push Putin to drop the rebels, but stop short of the point where he no longer has anything to lose by invading Ukraine. Achieving this balance will be difficult. If Western leaders want to save Ukraine, they need to show a lot more savvy and foresight than their counterpart in Moscow.

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Konrad Putzier is a New York-based journalist. He blogs at thelongerview.org. 

[Photos courtesy of Wikimedia

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