Russian President Vladimir Putin is being blamed for the tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday, with world leaders and pundits pinning the tragedy on Putin’s policies with respect to the Ukrainian rebels.
As we reported yesterday, President Barack Obama said:
“[The incident] should snap everybody's heads to attention and make sure that we don't have time for propaganda, we don't have time for games, we need to know exactly what happened, and everybody needs to make sure that we're holding accountable those who — who committed this outrage.”
Short of directly blaming Putin for the plane coming down, Obama did assign much of the responsibility for the situation with Moscow. Putin, Obama said, “has the most control over the situation, and so far, at least, he has not exercised it.”
An argument is emerging among many analysts and leaders that Putin may have opened a Pandora’s Box by supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine, providing them with material support and encouragement with little concern about where that might lead.
Mitch Potter of The Toronto Star called Putin’s role in Ukraine “a Frankenstein monster of chaotic, nihilistic, nativist ineptitude.”
Potter also pointed to a tweet from Garry Kasparov, the chess master who is no fan of Putin:
Now we come to the part where cautious politicians make bland statements hinting politely at a terrible truth everyone already knows.
— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) July 18, 2014
Reporting from Kiev, Time‘s Simon Shuster pointed to the crash of a plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczyński four years ago as a possible template for how Putin could use Flight 17 as a way to pivot toward a more conciliatory stance. But Russia’s president does not appear interested in following his earlier example. Rather, it seems that Putin is committed to a course that Shuster says “would not only mean further isolation for Russia” but “also prolong or even deepen the most dangerous phase in its conflict with Ukraine.”
The Telegraph‘s John Kampfner goes so far as to call Putin “a pariah” who “must now be treated as such.” Like Potter, he questions just how much control the Russian president has on the situation:
“For sure, Putin did not want developments to unfold in the way they have done. The rebels had, shortly before the Malaysian airliner was downed, just boasted about their prowess in picking Ukrainian military planes from the sky. They ended up picking the wrong target. Their minders in Moscow will be furious with them, knowing that the events of the past 48 hours will set back the rebels’ cause.”
But “Putin has no end game in Ukraine,” Kampfner writes, only certainty of “what he doesn’t want — a functioning, Western leaning, democratic state.”
And despite Putin’s meticulously groomed image, there is a question of whether he is truly as in control as he likes to portray himself as being. At Russia!, New York University professor Mark Galeotti writes, “In fact, the real Putin is clearly a cautious, in some ways even paradoxically timid figure in his aggressions.”
It’s possible that all of his maneuvering may just backfire, leaving him with an image of ineptitude to match the increasingly messy policy reality.
Russia-watcher Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post on Friday that the Malaysia Airlines tragedy offers Putin a chance to make amends for his earlier decisions:
“So far there is no sign of shock or shame in Russia. But in truth, this tragedy offers Vladimir Putin an opportunity to get out of the messy disaster he created in eastern Ukraine. He has the perfect excuse to denounce the separatist movement and to cut its supplies. If he refuses, then we know that he remains profoundly dedicated to the chaos and nihilism he created in Donetsk. We can assume he intends to perpetuate it elsewhere. And if we are not prepared to fight it, we should be braced for it to spread.”
Regardless of Putin’s own political concerns, or perhaps partly because of them, the challenges for Western leaders remain complicated as well. In today’s Washington Post, the editorial board criticized Obama for unsubtly pinning the blame on Putin but failing to counter with stronger actions beyond what they consider “half-steps and symbolic gestures.”
Still, at the United Nations Security Council emergency meeting yesterday, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power took a hard line against Russia’s role in the conflict.
“Russia can end this war,” she said. “Russia must end this war.”
But after the shooting down of Malaysia Air Flight 17, the question now is whether Vladimir Putin, or anybody else in Russia, has enough control over the situation to do so.