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With Europe on the brink, MH17 is Putin’s watershed moment

Vladimir Putin has built up enormous popularity based on Russian nationalism. To take a soft approach in Ukraine risks that, but to go hard risks war with Europe, explains Thomas Ambrosio, professor of political science at North Dakota State University.

The destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine by a surface-to-air missile will likely prove to be a watershed moment in this 21st-century European war and the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In order to understand its impact, we first need to try deducing the Kremlin’s plan before this tragedy. Obviously, only those closest to Putin know his intentions, and it is quite possible he has not come to a final decision about his Ukraine policy. Although many like to depict the Russian president as a cold, long-range calculator, indecision seems more likely: if the Kremlin were fully committed to the annexation of eastern Ukraine, it would have done so already.

Russia certainly had the means for annexation when the rebellion erupted, with troops massed along their shared border and the Ukrainian military demoralised over the humiliating loss of Crimea. Putin’s statements about the illegitimacy of Novorossiya’s (New Russia’s) incorporation into Ukraine after the Russian Civil War and a series of separatist-run referendums in eastern and southern Ukraine laid the rhetorical and political foundations for such a move. There are obvious differences between Crimea and the other contested areas — particularly in their geographic size and the percentage of ethnic Russians — but the lack of an open irredentist campaign implies that the Kremlin got cold feet. Instead, it adopted a strategy of covert support for the separatists through training, arms supplies, and limited Russian Federation involvement.

It is perhaps telling that Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language mouthpiece, used slightly different language when discussing the separatists in Crimea versus its current references to separatists in other parts of Ukraine. For example, it referred to the “Republic of Crimea“ as if it were an incontrovertible fact, but refers now to the primary separatist regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics as “self-proclaimed  — implying something more ephemeral, with less legitimacy.

The Kremlin’s public call to delay independence referendums and its refusal to immediately agree to the regions’ ascension to Russia contrasts sharply with its quick annexation of Crimea. Moreover, the Russian separatists have lost significant ground over the past few weeks without a military reaction by the Russian Federation in defence of its “compatriots” abroad. It is possible that the proxy war is laying groundwork for a Russian invasion in August or September, as suggested by some, but we cannot be certain. It is just as likely that Putin is playing for time, uncertain of his ultimate goal: the creation of a greater Russia or simply a weak and fractured Ukraine? The current crisis may actually reinforce the Kremlin’s indecisiveness.

In Russia, Putin is currently riding a wave of unbelievably high popularity, with an approval rating of 83%. It is too early to tell how the MH17 incident will impact this. Those Russians able to see through the Kremlin’s misinformation may reject being accomplices to mass murder and turn on the government. However, given the effectiveness of the propaganda machine in Russia, this will be evident only in the margins. The real danger for Putin is in the monster of his own creation — rabid nationalism.

Putin’s popularity is built in large part upon nationalist and xenophobic sentiments promoted by the Kremlin. This is fueled by an assertive foreign policy in the former Soviet Union and beyond, the championing Russia’s great power status, and the image of Putin as the primary defender of the Russian people. The annexation of Crimea reinforced all three of these factors and added a new designation for Putin, revived from the tsarist era:  ”the gatherer of Russian lands”.

The problem now for Putin is in eastern Ukraine. The covert campaign has kept his popularity high, since the Russian media has depicted Putin as indirectly continuing the good fight against the forces of Western/fascist evil. However, any let-up in the Kremlin’s support for the separatists, or signs that Putin is submitting to the West, will have a negative effect on his popularity. This is especially true if the separatists continue to lose ground to the central forces — a real possibility given recent Ukrainian military gains. This would be a political disaster for Putin. Nonetheless, the Kremlin’s support for the separatists may very well wane as a result of the destruction of MH17.

Most western European countries were more than willing to ignore the conflict in order to avoid upsetting relations with the Kremlin, keep their energy supplies coming, and continue doing business with and in Russia, but this mass murder of primarily European civilians makes this impracticable. An alliance between eastern Europe, which has heretofore argued futilely about the Russian threat, and the Netherlands, which lost a greater proportion of its population on July 17 than the United States lost on 9/11, may be able to shake up the European Union’s current policy inertia of symbolic responses to the Ukrainian crisis. Serious sanctions against Russia are now on the table, though their passage remains unlikely in the short term since the interests of France and Germany appear to be blocking any substantive policy changes.

Nonetheless, a sea change against Russia has occurred in the court of Western public opinion. Any possibility that the Kremlin could play a constructive role in the resolution of this conflict has been exposed for the delusion it has always been. Instead, Putin’s Russia is seen as a malevolent force. Any blatant Russian aggression in Ukraine — most likely an attempt to rescue the separatists from defeat — may serve as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. This would have the unintended effect of finally galvanising Europe to resist the greatest danger to the continent’s peace and stability since the end of the Cold War: Russian aggression. In such a circumstance, even the fence-sitters will be compelled to react in a serious, punishing way.

It is difficult to believe that the Kremlin does not understand how serious this possibility is. Real, substantive sanctions run the risk of further undermining the Russian economy, which desperately needs continued foreign investment to avoid being reduced to a rentier state, relying almost entirely on the export of its natural resources. This possible future is something Putin cannot tolerate, since, in addition to nationalism, the other foundation of his popularity rests on the increased living standards for ordinary Russians. Given these conditions, the Kremlin’s already evident hesitancy in Ukraine may become more prominent.

And thus, the tragedy of MH17 has backed Putin into a corner: either he can push forward and run the risk of increased confrontation with the West, which Russia can ill-afford, or he can abandon the separatists and become known as the traitor to Novorossiya and Russia’s great power status. His choice will determine the shape of Europe for the foreseeable future.

18
  • 1
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Usual empty rhetoric, devoid of critical insight into the actual evidence. A daily scan of http://zerohedge.com is like coming up for air.

    Russia and China and the other BRICS will at some point play their ace. Dumping T-bonds to displace the US dollar and kick the US out of Eurasia. It is going to be Murder on the Orient Express, they will all be in on it, even Germany and France.

  • 2
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Thomas Ambrosio: you say “Nonetheless, a sea change against Russia has occurred in the court of Western public opinion”…says who?…the US State Department, AIPAC ????

    In Australia people I talk to say that if the Russians are to be blamed for the MH17, then how many murders are the US, Great Britain & France, liable for via their arms exports….a non sequitor if ever I’ve seen one.

    Also, you say clearly in a pegorative way: “It is perhaps telling that Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language mouthpiece…”. Let me assure that any informed person globally in 2014 sees the US MSM, and indeed former Western bastions of free speech as the BBC, a State sponsored propaganda tools.

    Let be clear…the US MIC & its Wall St/US Federal Reserve ghouls want a war,any war, where they will profit enormously of course. Obama may be a neocon stooge, but he’s not going to wage war anytime soon, and tarnish his already evil war mongering legacy.

  • 3
    Tom Mullin
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    What total rubbish, when even the US State Dept is getting pilloried by US media during its briefings about the total lack of evidence (except social media) of who did it, then you know something is really fishy (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2014/07/229752.htm#UKRAINE)

    A quick check of this Thomas Ambrosio reveals a consistent anti-Russian position (his CV here http://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~ambrosio/cv_ambrosio.docx), like:

    Authoritarian Backlash: Russian Resistance to Democratization in the Former Soviet Union . ISBN 0-7546-7350-2. Which examines five strategies that an increasingly authoritarian Russia has adopted to preserve the Kremlin’s political power: insulate, bolster, subvert, redefine and coordinate. Each strategy seeks to counter or undermine regional democratic trends “

    Might be an idea to check out some of these ‘commentators’ history first before giving them any space. The probability of this person being objective about Russia (and thus objective about the Ukrainian conflict) is about the same as me winning lotto..twice in a row..

  • 4
    Peter Watson
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Those Russians able to see through the Kremlin’s misinformation may reject being accomplices to mass murder and turn on the government

    I read to this section and what was a good article, became just more shit propaganda.

    Malaysia prefers to investigate facts.
    http://www.nst.com.my/node/17391

  • 5
    Peter Watson
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps news sites could support the Malaysian investigation by calling on the US to release their surveillance records, Also UKr to release flight control records and records for their BUK systems that were in place and within range.

  • 6
    j.oneill
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Why is Crikey publishing propaganda from an obscure US university? It is wrong on so Many levels that it would take a lengthy article to enumerate that all. Readers should revert to the comments in response to Ben Sandiland’s articles for some information not clouded by the nonsense in this article.

    They might also like to read Pepe Escobar’s latest article in Asia Times online, “A Chessboard Soaked in Blood.” More truth and common sense in that short article than in a book load of Ambrosio’s nonsense. In fact it is worse than propaganda. In my view it is accurate disinformation. That should be a matter of profound concern to all Crikey readers.

  • 7
    j.oneill
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Whoops. “Accurate” in the penultimate sentence should read “actual” .

  • 8
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Putin on the other hand could refer to the USS Vincennes incident in 1988. The people on board the Iranian Aircraft were mostly Iranians and Pakistanis. There are clear parallels between that instance and the MH17 tragedy.

    However, in USS Vincennes instance it was just deemed an unfortunate mistake resulting in unavoidable negative collateral outcomes. The responsible persons got away free and were awarded with medals for their efforts. President Reagan did not apologise and this is still the subject of much resentment and justified outrage. But then again, it was an American naval forces mistake. For the rest of the world including Australia we knew they were Americans, weren’t they? Americans always act for the greater good as we all know.

  • 9
    Spica
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    I don’t subscribe to Crikey for this sort of tripe.

  • 10
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Bill Hilliger:

    couldn’t agree more.

    Go to Dr Gideon Polya’s excellent website & see the body count due to the warmongering of the US since 1950:

    globalbodycount.blogspot.com

    It’s mind boggling just how many millions of civilians they’ve slaughtered.

  • 11
    AR
    Posted Saturday, 26 July 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    In the past, Crikey has published bland drivel.
    In the past, Crikey has published propaganda (oddly directed), has published mind searing, boring bullshit and has occasionally published stuff so unhinged (nods at Razer & Grundle)and sometimes it gives us information that makes the subscription worth paying.
    The screed above seems to be a cut’n’paste job hot off the Langley fax.
    Did his PhD in 2000 at (sic! just down t’road from Langley?) Virginia Uni and has most recently completed a book project (so… not a book??) entitled Authoritarian Backlash: Russian Resistance to Democratization in the Former Soviet Union
    WTF are you playing at?

  • 12
    Liamj
    Posted Saturday, 26 July 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    @ Spica - me neither, but i rationalise it as an unavoidable evil. I don’t know how much of Crikeys income comes from the pro-yank/neoliberal type that lap up Ambrosio’s propaganda, but i’ll bet its more than they can afford to lose. Maybe we should go easier on aussie apologists, ‘buy australian’ sort of thing?

  • 13
    Tom Mullin
    Posted Sunday, 27 July 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Look this guy is a US establishment person has been all his life …no way is he going to rock the ship.

    Far better to check out the “Moons of Alabama” and “Vineyard of the Saker” if you want to know what is going on and what evidence is around.

    Where is the report that Russia showed its civilian radar tracks…showing a fighter close to the plane?

    Not going to get it from Crikey (or any other western media), though you can watch it on YouTube….just Google “Russian radar track video” and then watch their whole 29 min presentation and see the actual radar tracks (10 mins in).

  • 14
    city moments
    Posted Sunday, 27 July 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    This is’s such a typical American scholar acting as a mouthpiece for his nose poking government. Based on what evidence, can he so assume MH17 is a mass murder committed by Russian supported separatists ? Show us the evidence, where is your super spy agency NSA now? Professor AMBROSIO, why should your tax fund the NSA if they spend so much time spying you and everyone around the world but can not come up one piece of credible evidence over an incident of such significance?

  • 15
    Tom Mullin
    Posted Sunday, 27 July 2014 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    City, they are all, except a few, hacks.

    You read the US State Dept press briefing and the ‘journalists’ there are complain and bitching about the lack of evidence about they are being told.. then the next day the press is full of headlines about the US’s unsubstantiated claims..

    Even the reporters on the ground don’t believe this rubbish…but they have no power. Understand it from the Murdoch press…but Crikey?

    Trouble is that the Crikey owners don’t realise that I can’t trust this site anymore. If they can accept such terrible lies (despite all the evidence) about the Ukraine..what other lies are they just parroting?

    So zero credibility now….

  • 16
    Emile Tsalto
    Posted Monday, 28 July 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    What possible value can the downing of MH17 have for Russia?

    The plane was certainly taken down by a missile but was it from the ground? The Russian account shows an air traffic controller screen with a military plane next to MH17 just before it went down. Whose plane was it? Was downing a few days later of 2 Ukrainian fighter planes a revenge strike?

  • 17
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 30 July 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Is the West held as responsible for the use of ordnance it makes available around the world?

  • 18
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 30 July 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    klewi - of course there will condemnation, just like when RRR funded, trained,armed the Contras “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” and those glorious freedom fighters in Afghanistan.

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