Crime without punishment: Putin isn’t panicking


Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to be unfazed by international outrage over the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17, by Western sanctions or by diplomatic pressure, analysts suggest.

After all, “Putin answers to virtually no one,” a TIME magazine analysis suggests:

His command of the Russian airwaves will help him manage any blowback at home, spinning even the most damning evidence as part of an ancient American conspiracy. The more the world picks on him and Russia, the more it feeds a Russian will to push back, out of a sense of pride and victimhood. Isolation will still be the West’s only means of attack, and if Europe has lacked the will to impose it after Syria, after Crimea and even amid the global outrage over MH 17, it is unlikely to take action once the shock of the crash subsides. Putin has played this game before. He need only bide his time for the West’s own inaction to clear him.

russiaputinterror“The Europeans are in a panic over the U.S. line on sanctions,” says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected consultant who traveled to Europe in mid-July to rally support among pundits and politicians there. “As soon as the E.U. gets the slightest chance to turn away from Washington on the issue of Ukraine, they will take it.”

Putin has broken all the rules of international diplomacy, according to Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government (above).

It’s not Ukraine that Putin has been waging war against: It’s the West, says analyst Masha Gessen.

“Over the course of two and a half years, since starting his third term as Russian president against the backdrop of mass protests, Putin has come to both embody and rely on a new, aggressively anti-Western ideology,” she writes for

The enemy against which the country has united is the West and its contemporary values, which are seen as threatening Russia and its traditional values. It is a war of civilizations, in which Ukraine simply happened to be the site of the first all-out battle. In this picture, Russia is fighting Western expansionism in Ukraine, protecting not just itself and local Russian speakers but the world from the spread of what they call “homosfascism,” by which they mean an insistence on the universality of human rights.

Putin’s officials have threatened to retaliate against Western economic sanctions, but  “the problem with this is that it would require a sharp re-direction of Russian economic strategy,” according to David Clark, the founder and editor of Shifting Grounds, who served as special adviser at the British Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001.

“Despite the rhetoric of ‘sovereign democracy’ – an ideology based on the rejection of foreign influence – Russia is deeply embedded in the global economy,he writes for the New Statesman:

It needs not only access to foreign trade, but also inflows of foreign capital and technology to modernize and thrive. The investment requirement for its dilapidated energy sector alone stands at $2.7 trillion over the next twenty years. Without this Russia faces the threat of a return to the kind of long-term stagnation that brought an end to the Soviet era.

A strategy based on economic autarky and a closed ‘Russian world’ isn’t really viable. Russia doesn’t have either the capital or the technology needed to build new infrastructure and open new energy production in the Arctic North.

The key to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is found in the divergent mythologies of the two peoples, reflected in Putin rehabilitation of illiberal ideology against the West’s critical philosophy of information (see his recent discourse to the rabbis at the Kremlin), argues Antoine Arjakovsky, former director of the French Institute of Ukraine at Kiev, and the author of Russie – Ukraine. De la guerre a la paix?

Putin is not invading Ukraine for geostrategic reasons, but for ideological reasons, he contends:

His actions are explained only by reasons stemming from mythology. Because contemporary political science disdains myth too readily, considering it irrational, it is becoming less and less capable of understanding the world. That is like trying to negotiate an iceberg considering by only its visible part. For Putin, it is about restoring pride to the Russians by giving them an identity found, he believes, in the famous ideology of Tsar Nicholas I: “Orthodoxy, autocracy, the people.”

The sad thing is that Putin is a poor historian. He does not know that the only way for a people to recover its dignity and international recognition is to ask pardon for its crimes, to work tirelessly to eliminate every resurgence of ideology (such as the National Communism dear to Stalin) and to cease instrumental sing spiritual powers (such as the Russian Orthodox Church) in the name of power politics.

“The international community that still believes in the role of virtue and law has an essential role to play,” Arjakovsky notes. “But, as the philosopher Chantel Delsol has written, the international community should also return to the question of the spiritual foundations of democracy and international law.”

What various observers have perceived as a moment of truth that changes the mathematics of the Ukrainian crisis is, from Putin’s point of view, a misstep in a conflict with the West that he will be engaged in for years—until he leaves office, which he plans to do feet-first many years from now, notes Gessen:

To buy time, Putin issued a middle-of-the-night video address from his residence outside of Moscow [and held] an emergency meeting of the Russian security council on Tuesday. … As far as foreign observers could tell, Putin said nothing of consequence. But here is what he said at the start of his talk: “Obviously, there is no direct threat facing our country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity today, of course. This is guaranteed primarily by the strategic power balance in the world.” Translated, this means, I gathered you here today to remind the world that Russia is a nuclear power. And here is what he said as he was wrapping up: “We will respond in an appropriate and commensurate manner if NATO’s military infrastructure gets any closer to our border, and we will not close our eyes to the development of global anti-missile defense and the growth of supplies of strategic high-precision weapons, both nuclear and non-nuclear.” Translated, this means, Know how I reminded you five minutes ago that Russia is a nuclear power? Now I’ve told you we are prepared to use our nuclear capability if you try to pull one over on us. (He went on to say that missile defense systems were actually offensive weapons.) And by the way, if you every thought we’d stop at something, you probably don’t anymore.

The following day, European countries deferred a possible decision on tougher anti-Russian sanctions. The United States released information saying there was nothing linking the Kremlin directly to the downing of the plane. The U.S. media continued to call the disaster a “plane crash.” The acute phase of the aftermath of Flight 17 appeared to be ending. Was all of this because Putin was good at scaring the West or at obfuscating? Whatever it was, his tactics had worked beautifully.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, when he was not busy threatening the West with nukes, Putin signed several new laws. One bans advertising on paid-cable and satellite channels, effectively banning any independent television channel now or in the future from making money. (All broadcast channels are controlled by the state.) Another gives the government the tools to shut off Russians’ access to Western social networks such as Facebook or Twitter and services such as Gmail or Skype. A third provides for a jail sentence of up to four years for denying that Crimea is a part of Russia. On the same day, courts in Moscow and St. Petersburg ruled a half-dozen human rights organizations were “foreign agents,” effectively ending their activities.

“Putin’s war against the West and its perceived agents in Russia, in other words, continued unabated,” Gessen contends. “As he sees it, the unfortunate screw-up with the plane will be forgotten soon enough. He may or may not have to cede a little on Ukraine, but that’s all right: It’s just one battle in the giant war against the West he has already unleashed.”


Putin ‘cornered’: Ukraine woes compounded by $1.3 bn Yukos claim

russia-putin rosneft-Russia will discover next week how much it may be asked to pay for the confiscation a decade ago of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos Oil Co., then the country’s biggest oil producer, Bloomberg reports:

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague will rule on July 28 on a $103 billion damages claim the company’s former owners filed against Russia in 2007, Tim Osborne, head of GML Ltd., former holding company of Yukos, said by e-mail. Court official Willemijn van Banning said by phone she couldn’t comment on the date for the ruling. The potential multibillion-dollar punitive award comes as Russian President Vladimir Putinrisks further U.S. and European sanctions after the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet in eastern Ukraine that killed 298 passengers and crew.

A substantial award of damages “would add to Putin’s sense of being backed into a corner and that the West is out to get Russia,” said Masha Lipman, an independent political analyst based in Moscow. “Whether a coincidence or not, it will be seen as more than a coincidence.”  

“Things have changed in that Putin’s in real trouble,” said Mitchell Orenstein, an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. “But his approach hasn’t changed at all.”

 “His preliminary plan to destabilize the whole southeast of Ukraine has failed,” said Wojciech Kononczuk, a Ukraine expert with the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, Poland. “Instead, Ukrainian society is growing anti-Russian in a clear signal that the Kremlin just doesn’t understand Ukrainian moods,” he told Al-Jazeera.

Perhaps most worryingly, if Putin let the rebellion fall by the wayside he could face an influx into Russia of disgruntled separatists, who could accuse Moscow of abandoning them and want to stir trouble.

“Putin is cornered,” said Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe expert with the German-Marshall Fund. “He’s created a dynamic that forces him to push forward in Ukraine. Now, he can’t let go.” 

Putin’s crime, Europe’s cowardice?

russiaputinterrorEurope’s foreign ministers failed to agree new sanctions against Russia for its alleged role in the downing of MH17 despite a push by Britain, Sweden and a group of eastern European countries for an arms embargo to be imposed on the Kremlin, the Financial Times reports:

The ministers instead asked EU officials to draw up wider-ranging measures – but only if Russia fails to co-operate with the West in the future.  Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said that among the options on Thursday would be to call for an emergency summit of EU leaders to debate “tier three” sanctions, which target sectors of the Russian economy rather than individuals.

“It would be wrong to interpret lack of EU action today as European weakness,” said Mujtaba Rahman, head of European analysis for the Eurasia Group risk consultancy. “Sanctions policy in Europe has become more hawkish, and given the trajectory of this conflict remains escalatory, EU sector sanctions are likely later this year.”

In Ukraine, Europe is widely seen as waffling, the New York Times reports.

“It looks like they will not impose any strict sanctions,” said Svitlana Khutka, an associate professor of sociology at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kiev.

“Why? Because they say they are very concerned, deeply concerned, very, very concerned, very much concerned, so very deeply concerned,” she said in an interview. “You just don’t believe that they are concerned, because it is quite evident that they have their own interests.”

“Nowhere is the European conundrum clearer than in the Netherlands, a tiny nation of 16 million but one of the wealthiest in the European Union,” Thomas Erdbrink writes for the Times:

For more than a decade, the Dutch have been forging closer ties with Russia, emphasizing a growing trade and economic partnership while pointedly ignoring Mr. Putin’s regional ambitions.

Seeing Putin plain? EU agrees fresh sanctions on Russia


The European Union today agreed to impose visa bans and asset freezes on more Russian officials, on top of penalties imposed over Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and support for Ukrainian rebels along its border, USA Today reports:

Adrian Karatnycky, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, said European countries dependent on Russian gas worry that Russian President Vladimir Putin could respond with economic penalties of his own.

“There would be a problem for European industry in several countries if Russia were to retaliate with energy sanctions,” he said. “What they fear is Putin shutting off gas supplies to Europe.”

He said the United States, which conducts much less trade with Russia, could take tougher steps, which might protect Europe from Russian retaliation.

“The U.S. could take the lead in economic sanctions but with a wink from Europe,” he said

The downing of MH17 and Russia’s callous response is part of a disturbing pattern, says a leading commentator.

Vladimir Putin‘s first major act in power had been to lay waste to the city of Grozny in a manner reminiscent of Tamerlane,” analyst Bret Stephens writes for the Wall Street Journal:

Next he went after his domestic opponents in show trials that recalled the methods of Andrey Vyshinsky. …..In 2005 Mr. Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. In 2006 a mysterious pipeline explosion left Georgia without gas in the dead of winter, a tactic used against several of Russia’s neighbors. Later that year came the murders of Anna Politkovskaya, a muckraking journalist, and Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian intelligence officer who had defected to Britain and was dispatched with a dose of polonium. A few months later Estonia, another free-world thorn in Russia’s side, was subjected to a massive cyberattack.

This is only a partial list of the evidence available …. But it suggested a definite trend. The invasions of Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine still lay in the future. So did the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, the prison sentences for Pussy Riot, the legal harassment of Alexei Navalny, the asylum granted to Ed Snowden, the cheating on the IMF Treaty.

“It seems like Putin was for the first time caught red-handed and that this horrible tragedy could become a real game-changer for the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior researcher with Moscow Carnegie Center. “Putin still has room for maneuver granted to him by the obvious lack of resolute Western response” to his actions so far, Shevtsova said.

In the wake of the MH17 disaster, Russia “faces the most appalling public relations predicament that it’s been in, in decades,” according to a leading expert.

“No government wants to have the kind of criminal reputation that the Russians are acquiring,” says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Stephen Sestanovich.

“And the result is — you already see — is a kind of backing off of some of the positions that they have taken,” he told Newshour (above). They supported a U.N. Security Council resolution today. The separatists have been urged to release the bodies. There is that kind of minimal level of cooperation that is meant to rescue their international position right now.”

Putin is in a fix largely of his own making, says Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

The nationalist hysteria that …. dominates the Russian media right now has been encouraged by Putin. It is the consequence of the campaign that he’s been on to stoke Russian nationalism as a source for his domestic popularity. That is something that does limit his maneuvering room, but he can’t let himself be in a position where he makes Russia so isolated that it has severe consequences for the economy and for Russia’s political standing.

“Security assistance is probably the next issue on the agenda. It used to be said, you know, the Ukrainian military is so pathetic that they can’t even use any help or they use it irresponsibly,” he says.

“The record of recent weeks has been that the Ukrainian military has been able to make advances against the separatists, and they probably need further help.”


MH17 incident ‘a historically defining moment’


The downing of Malaysian Airline MH17 by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists “is truly a historically defining moment,” said former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.

“If we do the things we need to do, if we are firm and clear, but also somewhat flexible, we can still give Putin the chance to redeem himself and to rejoin the community of nations,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria:

We are, in fact, facing the first use of force over territorial issues in Europe since the outbreak of World War II. Putin is doing it. I think he can be persuaded to stop if we stand united, and that means presidential leadership from the United States and consistent, continued actions and European leaders rallying with us. It’s a major challenge, but it is defining.

Stephen Sestanovich, a former US ambassador to Moscow now at Columbia University, said that Putin’s past behavior made it difficult to predict which path he would take, the Guardian reports.

“This is the problem with Putin mind-reading,” he said, adding that Putin had alternated between prudent and reckless behavior.

“Even before the shoot-down there were some signs of diminished Russian enthusiasm for the whole project. Russian public opinion is going off it and support for separatism inside Ukraine is less than originally thought. But Russia kept the supply of weapons going,” said Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“You would think that this disastrous result would wake up Russian officials and make them see this was even more of a loser than they thought. But Putin doesn’t like to be put in a corner. He’s very humiliation-conscious,” he said, “and doesn’t like to feel he’s backed down.”

Would this tragedy have happened had tough sanctions against Russia been put into effect the moment Putin moved on Crimea? asks Garry Kasparov, the chairman of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation:

Would it have happened had NATO made it clear from the start they would defend the sovereignty of Ukraine with weapons and advisers on the ground? We will never know. Taking action requires courage and there can be high costs in achieving the goal. But as we now see in horror there are also high costs for inaction, and the goal has not been achieved.

The argument that the only alternative to capitulation to Putin is World War III is for the simple-minded. There were, and are, a range of responses. A horrible price has been paid but it will not be the last if even this fails to provoke a strong reaction. Financial and travel restrictions against Putin’s cronies and their families and harsh sanctions against key Russian economic sectors may also do some damage to European economies. Until yesterday, Europe could argue about how much money their principles were worth. Today they have to argue about how much money those lives are worth.

This week’s tragedy could remove any last shred of hope that Putin could be a valuable interlocutor in the Ukraine crisis, says Alexander J. Motyl,Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University–Newark.

It is not impossible that he will realize that continued war with Ukraine is a lose-lose proposition and decide to use the crash as an opportunity to reinvent himself as a peacemaker who can pressure the separatists in Ukraine, hammer out some deal with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and declare victory,” he writes for Foreign Affairs. “That doesn’t seem likely. But if he doesn’t, Russia’s cold war with the West could warm up considerably.”

The shooting down of MH17  must surely have shredded Vladimir Putin’s always ludicrous pretense that Russia is the concerned bystander in a conflict between Russian-speaking Ukrainians and western-backed ‘fascists’ in Kiev, writes FT analyst Philip Stephens:

Some in Europe have thus far found it convenient to half-collude in this fiction in order to safeguard commercial and energy interests. Federica Mogherini, the Italian foreign minister bidding for the role of EU foreign policy chief in succession to Catherine Ashton, has read from a script that might have been written by ENI, the Italian energy giant with huge interests in Russia.

In France president François Hollande has been loathe to jeopardise a multibillion-euro naval contract with Moscow. Can France seriously go ahead with the sale of assault ships to a Russia that has annexed one part of its neighbour’s territory and is fuelling a secession in another? Germany’s Angela Merkel has gone this way and that – occasionally toughening up the language about sanctions in EU communiques but then retreating in response to lobbying by German businesses and her Social Democratic Party coalition partner.

France risks “international ridicule” if it delivers a warship to Russia  despite the Malaysian Airlines disaster, but its intentions remain  unchanged, EU Observer reports.

Armed separatists on Sunday stacked body bags containing up to 200 victims into three refrigerated train wagons left idle at a train station in Torez, the town nearest to the crash site. Other remains were still uncollected near the plane wreckage, lying under baking summer heat, the FT reports:

Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said he was shocked by the “disrespectful behaviour” of the rebels controlling the crash site. “In defiance of all the rules of proper investigation, people have evidently been picking through the personal and recognisable belongings of the victims. This is appalling.”

In one wire tap from July 17, an alleged separatist nicknamed “Buryat” is heard asking someone the SBU identifies as a Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer: “Where should we load this ‘beauty’?” [above]:

When the alleged intelligence officer prompts him to specify exactly what he’s talking about, referring guardedly to a “B...M, Buryat replies “Yes, yes, Buk, Buk.”….“Thank God the Buk-M arrived today in the morning. Things got easier,” another recording between an alleged Russian intelligence officer in Ukraine and his superior in Russia said. Mr Nayda’s file also alleges that separatists removed bodies from the MH17 crash site as part of an initial, botched plan to cover up the atrocity.

On Sunday, the SBU said publicly that it had evidence that Russian-backed separatists were trying to “hide” the black box flight recorders from flight MH17 and prevent them from falling into “other people’s hands”.

It released what it alleged were wiretaps of conversations between Alexander Khodakovsky, a rebel leader, and rebel fighters at the crash site.

The voice purported to be Mr Khodakovsky says: “Moscow is interested in where the black boxes are.”

It continues: “Our comrades on high are very interested in the fate of the black boxes. This is Moscow we’re talking about.” He insists that the black boxes should not fall into “other people’s hands”, including the OSCE.