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Malaysia Air MH-17: Vladimir Putin gets away with murder

mh-17 militia

It is certain that a Russian made anti-aircraft missile fired by Russian armed, trained, and commanded Ukrainian “separatists” shot down Malaysia Air flight MH-17 last week killing all 298 passengers and crew aboard. The only outstanding question is the degree to which this was a conscious act perpetrated by the Russian government under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. I say the only open question is Putin’s direct culpability because we already know what is going to happen to Putin in particular and Russia in general. Nothing.

Despite widespread disgust at Russia’s involvement in this act of terrorism the odds are that Putin simply toughs it out and moves on.

Obfuscation

Putin has realized from the earliest moments that his thugs in eastern Ukraine, if not his army, were behind this operation. The last wreckage from MH-17 had hardly stopped bouncing when Russian media was reporting two different stories. These were for the consumption of its domestic audience and of subscribers to Ron Paul’s newsletters.

The first of these stories was than a Ukrainian fighter was responsible. Via the always entertaining RT.com (which is short an anchor if any of you are interested in applying)

The Russian military detected a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet gaining height towards the MH17 Boeing on the day of the catastrophe. Kiev must explain why the military jet was tracking the passenger airplane, the Russian Defense Ministry said.

A second theory floated was that Vladimir Putin was actually the target. Somehow while traveling from Brazil to Moscow the highly trained pilot of Putin’s official aircraft decided to joyride over Ukraine. Another gem from RT.com:

Malaysian Airlines MH17 plane was travelling almost the same route as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s jet shortly before the crash that killed 298, Interfax news agency reports citing sources.

“I can say that Putin’s plane and the Malaysian Boeing intersected at the same point and the same echelon. That was close to Warsaw on 330-m echelon at the height of 10,100 meters. The presidential jet was there at 16:21 Moscow time and the Malaysian aircraft – 15:44 Moscow time,” a source told the news agency on condition of anonymity.

“The contours of the aircrafts are similar, linear dimensions are also very similar, as for the coloring, at a quite remote distance they are almost identical”, the source added.

Alex Jones’s infowars.com, sort of America’s answer to North Korea’s media, is slavishly flogging a story that the Ukrainian army shot down the airliner as a provocation. When you read their source, a leftwing agitprop producer named Robert Parry, it is a compendium of Russian propaganda claims. .

The veracity of the taped communications between various separatist commanders are being called into question.

Delay

The unconscionable delay in allowing an accident investigation team to work the crash site is not an accident. Should the Russians allow an investigation, it would be allowed. The delay works to Moscow’s advantage. The longer the bodies are allowed to decompose the less forensic evidence they will produce. The crash site has been pilfered further degrading the quality of the evidence. We can bet that Russian aviation investigators are on the scene and by now have identified those sections of the wreckage which would show the tell-tale signs of an external explosion. Whenever international investigators are allowed on the scene they will undoubtedly find nothing that can unequivocally point to a missile explosion as the cause of the crash.

European vulnerability

The Dutch may be upset and using social media to protest but they are the Dutch and it is social media. Neither factor is likely to play a large role in Putin’s strategic calculus. The fact is that Europe stood aside, nodding and pulling its collective chin, as Putin carved Crimea out of Ukraine. Europe is dependent upon Russian energy supplies  and will tread carefully no matter how much it howls in indignation. Whatever sanctions Europe imposes one can be sure it will not imperil either Russian natural gas… or the Iranian oil it seems to have locked up.

America irrelevance

Obama’s policy preference has been summed up as “leading from behind.

But underlying that style, assures this Obama adviser, there really are ideas. Indeed, “two unspoken beliefs,” explains Lizza. “That the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.”

While the Europeans could be cajoled into coordinated action by the United States, no European nation is likely to attempt to take the lead for the certainty that it would be undercut by a jealous rival more likely than not called “France.”

Indeed, Obama has gone to extraordinary steps to diffuse any possible effort at finding the truth behind the crash. For instance:

At least one American citizen was among the nearly 300 innocent people killed when a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over Ukraine, President Obama announced Friday, calling the incident a “global tragedy.”

“An Asian airline was destroyed in European skies filled with citizens from many countries,” Mr. Obama said from the White House briefing room.

A “global tragedy.” Asians. Europeans. Many countries. One is hardly sure what this even means.

Today, Obama seemed even weaker.

More broadly, as I’ve said throughout this crisis and the crisis in Ukraine generally – and I’ve said this directly to President Putin as well as publicly – my preference continues to be finding a diplomatic resolution within Ukraine. I believe that can still happen. That is my preference today. And it will continue to be my preference.

But if Russia continues to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and to back these separatists, and these separatists become more and more dangerous – and now are risks not simply to the people inside of Ukraine but the broader international community – then Russia will only further isolate itself from the international community and the costs for Russia’s behavior will only continue to increase.

Now is the time for President Putin and Russia to pivot away from the strategy that they’ve been taking and get serious about trying to resolve hostilities within Ukraine in a way that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and respects the right of the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions about their own lives.

In this statement even though Obama correctly blames Russia as the proximate cause of the tragedy he seems to take the entire issue of repercussions off the table. Russia is hardly concerned about “further isolation,” Europe’s energy dependency and Obama’s weakness tells Putin that he has won.

Panic in the Kremlin?

There are plenty of people out there that see a different landscape. For instance, Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Navy War College, a Russian specialist, and proprietor of the excellent War Room blog says:

Panic in Moscow is hard to spot, but even from 6000 miles away, it’s easy to smell, and the metallic stink of fear is rising off the palace offices of the Russian executive as if from the gurneys in a cancer ward on the morning of an operation.

The only question, really, is how far Putin wants to go toward a trade war, economic collapse, further status as a pariah, maybe even open war, only in order to save face. The conventional wisdom is that he has to cut the insurgency loose.

Maybe. But if he doesn’t want to, he may settle for leaving a grinding conflict in place for now, in which he will claim that any real investigation and closure is impossible. He can then place his hopes in the West’s short attention span, and wait until all this blows over.

An opinion writer at Bloomberg sees Putin using this as a way to disengage himself from Ukraine:

If Putin keeps backing the insurgents until their inevitable defeat, his international isolation will deepen, as did that of the Soviet Union’s leaders after their jets shot down a Korean passenger jet in 1983, and former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi after the 1988 bombing of a PanAm airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. Malaysia, a Muslim nation that has long fought American influence, can hardly be expected to listen to Russian fairy-tales about the crash. The developing world will now join the West in condemning the rebels — and Putin as their only ally.

“It’s one thing to be the modest helper of some rebels,” former Russian diplomat Alexander Baunov wrote on Facebook. “It’s another thing to help insurgents who have perpetrated one of the biggest terrorist attacks in the history of aviation.”

By disowning the rebels immediately — in the form of criminal proceedings against the Russian citizens among them, the immediate withdrawal of any Russian aid for them and a public admission that it was their activity that led to the downing of MH17 — Putin could abandon the losing side while saving face. The window of opportunity for Putin to escape this losing war is shrinking, however, and he is unlikely to get a better chance.

Doubling down and driving on

There is no doubt that outside Russia this incident is not playing well. But the operative concept is “outside Russia.” If there is one thing that Putin understands it is that his survival is tied to his popularity in Russia. He has portrayed Ukraine as a bogeyman peopled by neo-Nazis hellbent on abusing Russians he is bound to protect. He can’t cut the Ukraine separatists loose even if he wanted to. His total control of media within Russia gives him an air of invicibility. Says a writer at Mashable.com:

Whether people think this Putin reality is really real is perhaps the wrong question to ask. The point of the propaganda machine is to keep people hooked and emotionally involved with a narrative fabricated by the Kremlin. …

On a more surreptitious level, Putin’s televised Potemkin world leaves the viewer with the feeling that, if the Kremlin is so powerful it can dictate reality, then it is far too powerful to resist. You watch television not to discover the truth, but to find out what those in power require you to repeat as the truth. It is a way of receiving instructions — an inheritance from Soviet times when the State would communicate its versions of events via Pravda.

Back in 2000, when the Kursk sank, Putin didn’t have the tools to make sure his reality won. In 2014, he does. In a morbid way, the downed Malaysian airliner provides the Ukrainian story with a Hollywood-worthy plot turn.

Russian TV has already kicked into action: one story on the main, blue-chip evening news program argued Ukrainian forces meant to assassinate the President himself but confused the Malaysian plane with Putin’s personal plane.

Another story is that the Ukrainians and the Americans set the plane up by guiding it off course into the war zone. There can be more than one story of course. Best to have lots to entertain the audiences with.

The downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane, to Putin, is not a threat — it’s an opportunity. The downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane, to Putin, is not a threat — it’s an opportunity.

And there’s no one close to him who dares say otherwise.

Foreign policy observer Steve LeVine, writing at the blog Quartz, sees Putin as being unable to extricate himself even if he wanted to.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has marched into a corner—having opted for war to halt Ukraine’s courtship with the West, he now faces international opprobrium and the probability of stinging new sanctions over the Malaysian Airlines crash.

While it is early and Putin may yet terminate his dual military and propaganda offensives against Ukraine and the West, the signs are by and large not of a man seeking a way out. Rather, Russia seems to be keeping to its pre-crash narrative.

Edward Lucas, of the Center for European Policy Analysis, suggests that the problem is the corner itself: even if he wanted to shift course, Putin has little room to maneuver after months of building a forceful domestic case—and his people into a frenzy—against outside enemies. He can’t back down from the brink, Lucas told Quartz in an email exchange. It would be “too humiliating now that he has demonized the West and Ukraine.”

In the end, Malaysia Air MH-17 will become an asterisk in aviation history joining other civilian aircraft that have fallen victim to military action. Putin can’t disavow the Ukrainian separatists because he created them and shaped Russian public opinion to support them. To disavow them would be to disavow himself. Set against this is a feckless group of nations, ostensibly led by a feckless and disinterested American president who will ultimately vote their economic (for Europe this means natural gas) and political (for the US this means maintaining the illusion of Russian cooperation on Iran’s nuclear weapons) interests and forget about this act of murder.

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