'Putin is a pariah - he must now be treated as such'
After the terrible loss of MH17, Europe must now stand firm against Putin
By John Kampfner
1:10PM BST 19 Jul 2014
For the past two decades, many around the world have been in denial. Russia was changing, they insisted. And so it has. It has embraced money, private jets and super yachts. For a fleeting few years in the early 1990s it toyed with democracy, only to conclude that this course was synonymous with chaos. Out of this new experiment of bling with brutishness came Vladimir Putin.
Six months into the crisis in Ukraine, the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner marks a defining moment in the West’s approach to Russia. Or at least it should.
Putin is a pariah. He must now be treated as such.
The terrible loss of MH17, with passengers from a dozen nations on board, was tragedy enough. The stories of Dutch families obliterated, scientific experts on their way to a conference in Australia, and Newcastle football fans making the extraordinary journey to New Zealand were heart-rending. Initially, as the facts remained a little unclear, the Russian President could, just could, have salvaged what remained of his international credibility in his response to the crash. He could have expressed his horror at the military escalation in eastern Ukraine, vowing that the perpetrators of the crime would be brought to justice. Then, in time, he might have called for a conference on the future of Russians in Ukraine and ensured that they secured greater autonomy. He would have been able to trade on some goodwill, alongside the power that comes with Russia’s dominance of energy supplies to Europe. Machiavelli would have approved.
Instead he reverted to thuggish type. As state television produced its now familiar diet of propaganda, the president insisted that the Ukrainians only had themselves to blame. Meanwhile, rebel leaders in the crash site area threatened journalists and investigators who tried to piece together the facts. The idea, from the very start of the Ukrainian insurgency, that the balaclava-clad forces in Crimea and the east of the country were a spontaneous reflection of local sentiment was laughable. They have been armed and coordinated from on high, from the Kremlin. Now the order has gone out to eliminate the incriminating evidence. This will be difficult, but Putin’s hope is to muddy the trail just enough that it will allow some European politicians to argue that further sanctions and other repercussions be toned down.
For sure, Putin did not want developments to unfold in the way they have done. The rebels had, shortly before the Malaysian airliner was downed, just boasted about their prowess in picking Ukrainian military planes from the sky. They ended up picking the wrong target. Their minders in Moscow will be furious with them, knowing that the events of the past 48 hours will set back the rebels’ cause.
In recent weeks, as the Ukrainian authorities had regained a few footholds in the East, the attention of the international media had moved elsewhere. Now it has refocused on the region. Movements of Russian military kit will be more closely monitored. Putin cannot afford another mistake. In the short-term at least, the rebels and their masters will have to watch their step.
Putin has no end game in Ukraine. He knows what he doesn’t want – a functioning, Western leaning, democratic state. He hated the idea that in May Ukraine conducted presidential elections, which contained clear choices and produced an undisputed outcome – at least in areas he couldn’t reach. His only purpose is to destabilise, as he has done in other former republics of the Soviet Union, whose demise he has publicly lamented. Nor does he have a grand plan for Russia, apart from restoring its “dignity”, after the “humiliations” of the 1990s.
Some of his resentments are justified. Russia was taken for granted in the early 2000s. The post-9/11 logistical support it provided for America’s war in Afghanistan, and its agreement not to hinder the war in Iraq were banked, with nothing given back in return. Putin could be forgiven for becoming wary of the West. Indeed, with power shifting to Asia and with emerging countries looking for points of reference beyond the United States, he could have developed a more subtle foreign policy that might have posed an interesting challenge. Instead he fell into a mind-set that was part Soviet era and part Latin American dictator of the 1970s.
His land grab in Crimea was hugely popular back home; his poll ratings reached an all-time high. Although it squealed, the West did not particularly object to the snatching back of a peninsula that had traditionally belonged to Russia and was ostentatiously handed over to Ukraine by a drunken Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 – at a time when demarcations between Soviet states were largely irrelevant anyway.
The crisis in eastern Ukraine is different. It will further damage Russia’s flat-lining economy and is costing lives. Families in the region are being torn asunder as they are forced to make choices about allegiances. Yet, miserabilist that he is, Putin will not call off the dogs of war, because that will look weak.
Back in Moscow, in the sushi bars and the five-star hotels, business goes on as usual. Russia has the veneer of a modern state. The wealthy are driven from plush office to suburban dacha in their tinted-windowed Mercedes, not quite impervious to events in Ukraine, but confident that it won’t affect them.
With each month, the United States has shown greater determination. Europe is divided. Some leaders want tougher action; others, mindful of their dependency on Russian gas, continue to hold back. President Obama is contemplating a further set of sanctions against named individuals and companies deemed to be close to Putin. For all the denials, the earlier rounds have hurt – a little.
The British government’s denunciation of Russian foreign policy and supine embrace of its money is hypocritical and self-defeating. Apart from one or two individuals who have stood up to the Kremlin – and usually ended up in jail – Russia’s billionaires have been his de facto ambassadors, providing glamour to Russia’s international image. They know which side of the fence they are on.
In September 1983 when the Soviets shot down a Korean passenger jet that had strayed into their air space, the Cold War was at its height and Russia was a closed country. Politically and militarily, the Kremlin may not have moved on, but economically the world is very different. Russia’s wealth is tied up in Western banks. Its companies are listed on global stock exchanges. Its oligarchs own prestigious properties in London, Courchevel and the Cote d’Azur. The country that helped them become rich is led by one of the most sinister politicians of the modern age.
This is both Putin’s strength and his weak spot. And this is where the West needs to act.
John Kampfner was the Telegraph’s Moscow bureau chief 1991-94. His latest book, The Rich, is published in October