Could the shoot-down of MH17 be a tipping point for Putin’s Russia?

Sergey Radchenko writes: The shoot-down of the Malaysia Airlines plane puts Vladimir Putin in a situation comparable to that of his role model, [Soviet leader Yuri] Andropov. Like in the early 1980s, Russia today faces international isolation and Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine. There is a widening gap between Moscow and the West in terms of understanding the other side’s perspective and likely actions. And in some ways, things might even be worse for Putin. In the early 1980s, the Soviet public was generally unaware of the deep crisis in East-West relations. Today, Russia’s public opinion has been inflamed by a torrent of vicious anti-Western propaganda amid rising nationalism, which severely constraints Putin’s ability to maneuver.

What really undermined the Soviet position in 1983 were the regime’s blatant lies and unwillingness to cooperate in an international investigation. Putin’s record in this respect is far from reassuring. Memorably, his presidency started with deception in the August 2000 sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine, which Moscow initially blamed on NATO while refusing foreign help in rescuing the crew. Putin then lashed out at a then-still-free Russian media for criticizing the government response and infuriated grieving families with his comment on the fate of the submarine: “It sank,” he said with a callous smirk.

At a time when Russia’s relations with the West are at their lowest point since 1983, it is not surprising that Putin blamed the Ukrainian authorities for the disaster. The Russian media, in an attempt to shift the onus from Russia-sponsored separatists, has aired stories claiming that the Ukrainian air force downed the Malaysian airliner. While Ukraine’s responsibility cannot be discounted pending investigation, Putin is making a big mistake by pre-emptively pointing the finger at Kiev. By refusing to acknowledge the possibility that the pro-Russian militias may be responsible for the disaster, the Russian president risks losing moral ground by becoming an apologist and an accomplice to the crime.

If the investigation reveals that the separatists were responsible, only unequivocal denunciation of the perpetrators will save Putin from moral bankruptcy. Yet doing so will mean a drastic reversal for Russia’s support for the separatists, a prospect too painful for the Kremlin to contemplate. Accustomed to deception and disinformation, Putin evidently hopes to muddle through this latest setback. But this will only lead to a deeper crisis in Russia’s relations with the West. Memories have not faded yet of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and certainly not of the 1983 war scare. There were no catastrophes then — but this third time the world could be unlucky. [Continue reading…]

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