James Kirchick

After the horrific tragedy of MH17, Europe must wake up to the threat posed by Vladimir Putin

After the horrific tragedy of MH17, Europe must wake up to the threat posed by Vladimir Putin
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How many more civilian planes need to be shot down over European airspace before Europe’s leaders get serious about the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia?

As the smoke clears from Thursday’s horrific downing of a Malaysian Airlines jet traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, many will try to deflect blame from landing squarely where it should: on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

‘Airliner tragedy in Ukraine shows US & EU erred by not pushing to keep Ukr[aine] as neutral buffer state, not potential EU/NATO member,’ tweeted Stephen Walt, a prominent voice of the ‘realist’ school of foreign policy and a leading apologist for the Russian government.

RT, Moscow’s 24-hour propaganda news network, has gone so far as to blame the Ukrainian government for shooting down the plane, on the grounds that they thought it was actually Putin’s personal jet.

Of course, Putin did not order his army to shoot down Flight MH17. He never wanted his little proxy war in Eastern Ukraine to spread beyond that country’s borders. The entire purpose of his months-long maskirovka, or war by means of military deception, was to keep the conflict and chaos contained so as to weaken the central government in Kiev and beleaguer it indefinitely as a failed state. A key element of maskirovka is the maintenance of plausible deniability, and as long as Putin didn’t send regular forces bearing Russian military insignia over the border, he was able to maintain the illusion that he was not waging warfare against another country.

This was always a ruse, but most Western leaders bought into it. The cost of their obliviousness, of deliberately closing their eyes to Putin’s depredations at home and abroad in hopes that ignoring the trouble would make it all go away, can now be found in the rolling fields outside Donetsk, where, as I write this, the mangled corpses of EU citizens are being desecrated by the inebriated, Russian-backed separatists who most likely shot down the plane.


The minute Putin decided that he would start a war in Ukraine over its rejection of Viktor Yanukovych and embrace of Europe, he set in motion a long chain of events leading to Thursday’s tragedy. Independent polls have consistently shown that Eastern Ukrainians want to remain citizens of a united Ukraine. Taking a cue from his Leninist forbears in the KGB, Putin set about equipping a fanatical armed minority to make mischief. If he couldn’t install another puppet in Kiev to replace the mafia boss who had been deposed, he would settle for the next best thing: an insurgency armed, funded and trained by his secret services aimed at destabilizing the Ukrainian government.

Throughout this crisis, Western leaders have consistently moved back the goalposts as to what would constitute an ‘unacceptable’ breach by Putin. The first armed annexation of territory on the European continent since World War II (justified under the same, ominous pretense of ethnic comradeship as Hitler’s land grabs) ought to have been met swiftly with serious, backbreaking sanctions. But the most Washington and Brussels could devise in response were individual visa bans and asset freezes on a handful of Putin cronies, and ready-to-eat meals for the under-equipped Ukrainian military. Having gotten away with the wholesale theft of another country’s land, why not try to establish breakaway ‘People’s Republics’ in Eastern Ukraine? Why not prevent Ukrainians from voting in their presidential election on May 25? Why not fire missiles, from Russian territory, at Ukrainian military convoys? Why not send tanks and anti-aircraft batteries to the separatists? And why not help operate these sophisticated weapons systems to shoot down Ukrainian military transport planes?


Given the mealy-mouthed reply from Western leaders to these acts of aggression, it is not difficult to understand why Putin kept moving forward. And it is easy to see how it blew up, literally, in his face.

The start of the Putin era can be traced to another mass-murder of civilians, the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999, which many outside observers believe were orchestrated by Russia’s secret services to rally nationalistic sentiment behind the soon-to-be President-for-Life. Putin used the incident as a pretext for launching a devastating war in Chechnya, a crusade that had the added benefit of boosting his popularity among the Russian populace. One can only hope that Thursday’s act of mass murder will set in motion the end of the Putin era, as the world finally wakes up to the threat posed by the criminal in the Kremlin.

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative and a correspondent for the Daily Beast