MH17: Vladimir Putin’s big blunder

Pro- Russian rebels took credit for the bombing of the Malaysian Airlines plane
Pro- Russian rebels took credit for the bombing of the Malaysian Airlines plane

By: Daniel Treisman
The tragic fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, believed shot down by a missile in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board, has cast a new light on the series of gambles Russian President Vladimir Putin embarked on in late February.

At that time, Putin sent military intelligence troops in unmarked uniforms to take control of the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Three weeks later, Russia annexed the region.

As Russian-speaking Ukrainians farther north in Donetsk and Luhansk stormed administrative buildings, demanding independence from Kiev, Russian intelligence officers started slipping across the border to help organize the militias. In subsequent months, Moscow supplied the separatist guerrillas with artillery, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons.

Putin’s goal appeared to be to pressure Ukraine’s leaders to negotiate with the Russia-backed rebels and offer constitutional autonomy to the country’s eastern regions. Intimidated by the superiority of the Russian army, Kiev — it seemed — would have to buckle under.

This strategy was failing even before the Malaysia Airlines tragedy. Soon after his election last May, Ukraine’s new President, Poroshenko, launched a determined military campaign to crush the separatist guerrillas. Although he might have been willing to negotiate with Putin, he showed no inclination to talk to the swashbuckling Russian desperadoes on the ground.

The success Poroshenko’s operation was having explains why recently Moscow reportedly supplied its proxies with at least one radar-guided Buk missile system that could destroy Ukrainian military planes flying at high altitudes. Such missiles also had the range to hit the commercial airliners that continued to cross the conflict zone.

While the facts about who shot down Flight MH-17 can only be settled by a full investigation, Ukraine’s government has said it has “compelling evidence” that a Russian-supplied battery, manned by Russian operatives, fired the missile.
Suddenly, the risks inherent in Putin’s gamble are glaringly obvious. By supplying weapons to the rebel militias, with their strange mix of intelligence agents, local thugs and trigger-happy Russian volunteers, Putin made himself a hostage to their brutish blundering. On Saturday, some of these “freedom fighters,” apparentlydrunk, were said to be manhandling the corpses, while barring OSCE observers from the crash site.

All must now await the results of the international investigation. If it concludes that the plane was shot down by rebels using a Russian-supplied missile — or, worse still, by Russians themselves — the pressure on Putin will become intense. The West, led by President Barack Obama, will demand that he cut off support to the rebels once and for all and seal the border.

If Putin does not do so, tougher economic penalties are almost certain. Already, the latest round of U.S. sanctions, announced on July 17, surprised observers by their severity. They targeted the third and fourth largest Russian banks — VEB and Gazprombank — as well as the energy companies Rosneft and Novatek, which are associated with the Putin cronies Igor Sechin and Gennady Timchenko.

Putin will, thus, have two options, both dangerous for his regime.

A woman covers her mouth with a piece of fabric to protect herself from the smell as she walks near railway wagons which according to employees and local residents contains bodies of passengers of the Malaysia Airlines plane which crashed in eastern Ukraine three days ago, at a railway station on July 20, 2014 in the town of Torez. The missile system used to shoot down a Malaysian airliner was handed to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine by Moscow, the top US diplomat said Sunday. AFP PHOTO/ BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
A woman covers her mouth with a piece of fabric to protect herself from the smell as she walks near railway wagons which according to employees and local residents contains bodies of passengers of the Malaysia Airlines plane which crashed in eastern Ukraine three days ago, at a railway station on July 20, 2014 in the town of Torez. The missile system used to shoot down a Malaysian airliner was handed to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine by Moscow, the top US diplomat said Sunday. AFP PHOTO/ BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

He could reject the conclusions of the international investigation and stand by the separatists. This would result in serious damage to the Russian economy from sanctions that might now target whole sectors such as banking or energy. Such measures would send the economy — already forecast by the IMF to grow just 0.2% this year — into a painful recession.

At the same time, the Kremlin would find itself more internationally isolated than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Not just the U.S. and Britain, but many other countries that were previously friendly or neutral would start to treat Putin as a pariah. And Putin would have to worry that his protégés across the border might commit some new atrocity, provoking the world into even tougher countermeasures.

Putin’s second option would be to accept the report’s conclusions and cut off supply lines to the rebels. But that could create significant problems for him at home.

To those informed about the conflict by Russian state-controlled television, such a turnaround would be bewildering. A relentless barrage of propaganda has convinced many Russians that their co-ethnics in Donetsk and Luhansk are being massacred by troops commanded by a fascist regime in Kiev. For Putin to bow to international pressure and abandon his former charges would look like cowardice.

Such a betrayal could quickly squelch the post-Crimea euphoria. From the start, the Kremlin’s strategy in Ukraine has aimed in part at consolidating domestic support. As the economy stagnates, Putin has sought to replace growth and prosperity as a basis for popularity with anti-Western nationalism and conservative values.

In the past, xenophobic nationalists have been among the least favorable toward Putin. His current astronomical ratings — 86% in the latest Levada Center poll — suggest at least some temporary success in winning them over.

Were he to abandon the anti-Kiev insurgents, Putin could kiss such support goodbye. Moreover, were he to admit that Russian-backed rebels fired the missile, the credibility of Russian state-controlled television would suffer. The main channels have pushed a variety of conspiracy theories, including one in which the Ukrainian military shot down the plane, mistaking it for the jet flying Putin home from the BRICS summit in Brazil. Should Putin disavow such theories and endorse the Western version, his propagandists would look like liars.

It remains possible that the investigation will fail to reach any strong conclusions, leaving Putin some wiggle room. But at this point interpretations completely exonerating Russia are few and far between.

“War,” wrote Clausewitz, “is the province of chance.” The danger that a covert military operation could get out of hand should have been clear all along. For 14 years, Putin proceeded cautiously in international affairs, weighing expected costs and benefits before taking action. His decision to invade Crimea was so uncharacteristically risky — with such large potential costs and short-lived benefits — that it took many observers by surprise.

Now, unless some new unexpected event turns up to rescue him, Putin faces an unappealing dilemma. Either way, the risks are high. Having gambled his way into trouble, he now has little choice but to roll the dice again.

Note: Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev.”




3 responses to “MH17: Vladimir Putin’s big blunder”


    Tamilian Jayalalitha objects to observing a Sanskrit week and demands a “classical languages week” putting Tamil at the same level as Sanskrit. Sanskrit mantras can command the forces of nature; anyone can see videos of thousands of practitioners of Transcendental Meditation spectacularly overcoming gravity every day and this is a trivial example of the power of Sanskrit. Can Tamil do that? No language can be compared to Dev Bhasha Sanskrit. I was aghast to see on Bharat-Rakshak — a collection of bhangis and chamars — someone say Jews are the Brahmins of the Middle East, defiling the word ‘Brahmin’ and defiling India. Any Indian, no matter what his caste, is higher than a Westerner who by definition are ‘mlecchas’ and the lowliest worm is higher than a Jew. To restore social order, Jews and Americans must be denied entry to India just as they would be denied entry to a temple.

    (July 17, 2014) MALAYSIAN AIRLINER THAT CRASHED IN UKRAINE WAS BROUGHT DOWN BY MICROWAVE SIGNALS FROM UNITED STATES NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY SATELLITES. See ‘Indian Air Force Pilots’ Murder’ : IndianAirForcePilotsMurderDOTblogspotDOTcom . This was done to keep the conflict alive and keep the former republics from reuniting as I had suggested below :-

    Russia and Ukraine are a single country temporarily separated by the machinations of the CIA. They should forget everything and re-unite with the help of other republics that were part of the same country, with no role for the EU or the UN. A body of representatives of the former republics including Russia and Ukraine should by consensus make all decisions which everyone has to abide by. The separate republics are the result of a voluntary dissolution of a utopian state because of its leaders’ willingness to experiment. By now it is clear that the republics should re-integrate.

    Ukrainians should at least suspend their strife till after the destruction of the United States. Indians are going crazy that, in response to my reference to Modi fighting for a U.S. visa, the United States wants to “honor” Modi by having him address a joint session of U.S. Congress. They are silent about the honor given to the greatest Indian of all time:- “”India’s greatest scientist and greatest living Indian publicly tortured in Harvard seminar, systematically and totally starved for up to 3 weeks at a time, made semi-starved and homeless and even blind for years, kept under 24-hour audio and video surveillance as well as surveillance of [and interference with] communications and electrical typewriter and computer use, document creation and photocopying, etc., by satellite for more than past 3 decades, systematically harassed and in poverty and neutralised and robbed of his work at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per year, robbed of crores in his money and property in India by C.I.A.-RAW, forced back into exile in the U.S., all with full cooperation and participation of India’s RAW and India’s C.I.A.-RAW-controlled prime ministers, politicians and media — to keep India poor, weak and enslaved” and how this means the nuclear destruction of New Delhi and then the coast-to-coast destruction of the U.S.; see my blog titled ‘Nuclear Supremacy For India Over U.S.’ which can be found by a Yahoo/Google search with the title; my biography can be found in Marquis’ Who’s Who in the World, 2014 and earlier editions.” In the past few years I have had India’s nuclear forces emplace India’s nuclear warheads in Washington, New York and other U.S. cities, ready to be exploded. Simultaneously destroying Washington, New York and New Delhi (RAW headquarters, South Block and North Block) with a warning that additional U.S. cities will be similarly destroyed, with nuclear warheads already emplaced in them, if there is any retaliation or sign of retaliation, will immediately make India the supreme military and economic power in the world even before implementing my proposal about money which can make India’s economy grow 30% per year or more. IndiasLegitimateRulerSatishChandraDOTblogspotDOTcom


    I have said no one has done more damage to India, in science and in everything else, than the Jews. See ‘This Is What the Jews, Americans and RAW Have Been Doing’ : ThisIsWhatTheJewsHaveBeenDoingDOTblogspotDOTcom . In a letter dated July 27, 1982 to Indira Gandhi as prime minister I referred to an act, by American Jews, that was “the equivalent of an annihilatory nuclear first strike on India”. In her reply dated July 29, 1982 she wrote “Dear Mr. Chandra, I have received your letter dated July 27, 1982 and am passing it on to my Principal Secretary to deal with it. Sincerely, Indira Gandhi”. In December, 1982 I wrote to her “There was sudden, terminal, overwhelming violence against me during a seminar at Harvard University and rather similar occurrences earlier… India can expect sudden, annihilatory violence … with nuclear weapons … against its population … unless it can mount a decisively superior force to stop it”. Following my advice, India’s strategic program, including the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme and the Centre for Advanced Technology, was started to give India victory in a nuclear war with the United States and because of my influence on her, Indira Gandhi as prime minister was assassinated by CIA-RAW and later when Rajiv Gandhi realized the truth of what I had written to her after the American invasion of Iraq which was the first Gulf War, he was also assassinated by CIA-RAW. In the past few years, I have had India’s nuclear forces emplace nuclear warheads in Washington, New York and other U.S. cities and India is now in a position to destroy the United States without being destroyed. In fact, India is in a position now to destroy the United States without itself suffering a single casualty by triggering its nuclear warheads emplaced in Washington and New York with a warning that additional U.S. cities will be similarly destroyed if there is any retaliation or sign of retaliation. Goonda Modi and his Cabinet are determined to keep India in slavery.

    For the past 37 years, the U.S. National Security Agency has kept me under 24-hour audio, video and communications surveillance by satellite and feeds of this surveillance are provided to India’s RAW as well as to Russian intelligence. When he was president, Bill Clinton held a White House conference on “The New Economy” which results from my proposal about money described in “How India’s Economy Can Grow 30% Per Year Or More” : HowIndiasEconomyCanGrowDOTblogsourDOTcom . The CIA has been stealing my intellectually property for the past 37 years while inflicting as much injury and degradation on me as possible with the fullest participation of just about everyone who is anyone in the American government, media, academia, etc.; this is one reason why the United States has to be destroyed by India’s nuclear forces.

    Satish Chandra

  2. 5thDrawer Avatar

    “local thugs and trigger-happy Russian volunteers”
    Is Daniel Treisman reading me on YaLibnan?? ;-))
    (poor locals … the railway cars don’t look refrigerated …)

    (Ignore the guy above/below … must be a tamil-jockey … 😉 )

    Alexander Borodai’s picture in another ‘no comments’ article …
    Is surrounded by his bearded skin-heads … curious mix there, for sure. (friendly guys .. :-)))))

    “Hassan Nasrallah expressed solidarity with the Palestinian people in a phone call….”
    Hope he paid the hospital he’s in for the long-distance call …

  3. 5thDrawer Avatar

    And speaking of airlines … between Israel/Gaza and Russian Idiots, they are being chased out of the skies. Flights are being eliminated/cancelled.
    No airline likes to chance losing a plane – damn things cost a bit. One sitting on the ground doesn’t cost anything except the one missed seat-sale the day it was grounded.
    Anarchistic minds will enjoy the revenue reversals, of course. ‘Be a Tourist at home’ seems sensible.
    In Ukraine, not all ‘body parts’ or bodies have been found … the whole main crash site has and IS STILL being ‘compromised’ for discovering anything by the researchers … while the goons with their kalashnikovs stand brooding (guarding?) over the inspection team the ‘villagers’ comb through looking for stuff they can sell – probably to a Russian. It’s a disaster in more ways than one.

    Putin should be a little nervous. (but how could we tell?)

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