James Kirchick

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

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.

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