x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Even as Europe dithers, Putin loses control of the narrative

Russian president Vladimir Putin appears to have gambled and lost in supporting Ukraine's separatists, but Alan Philps asks if the effect on his reputation will last long?

Russian president Vladimir Putin is on the back foot over MH17. Photo: AFP / Alexey Druzhinin
Russian president Vladimir Putin is on the back foot over MH17. Photo: AFP / Alexey Druzhinin

Until the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, Vladimir Putin had a reputation as a master strategist. Since being in charge of Russia he has never lost a war: he came to power pledging to crush Chechen separatists in southern Russia, which he did with great brutality. He demolished the US-equipped army of Georgia in 2008 and continues to occupy two pieces of that country’s territory.

So far he has protected his Syrian ally, Bashar Al Assad, calculating that Barack Obama would hesitate to get involved in another Middle Eastern war. Earlier this year, he oversaw a lightning takeover of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, deploying an army of “little green men” – Russian soldiers without insignia on their uniforms – to capture the territory.

So far his gambles have paid off. Perhaps the word gamble is not appropriate to Mr Putin’s character. He is more of a cautious analyst than a reckless warrior, preferring an obvious quick win, as in Crimea, or a conflict where the correlation of forces – as in Georgia – is overwhelmingly in his favour.

The question he faces now is: has he gone against his better instincts by backing the secessionist rebels in Eastern Ukraine. His arms-length involvement with this rabble of drunks and thugs, loosely controlled by Russian military intelligence, has given him plausible deniability. It threatens, however, to destroy his reputation at home as the man with the winning touch.

When Mr Putin made a statement on Monday to call on the rebels to allow investigators access to the crash site, he lacked his usual swagger. Was Mr Putin anguished that his tactical nous had deserted him? But Mr Putin is a consummate performer. Perhaps it was a show of humility to gain some credit from the United States.

What is certain is that the western powers have a difficult task: to keep pressure upon Mr Putin so that he stops backing the rebels, while not exerting so much that he feels cornered and tempted to unleash his army to launch a full invasion.

While Mr Putin may not want to use his army against brother Slavs, it is easy to imagine circumstances when he might do so. If the Ukrainian armed forces launch a full-scale attack on the rebel-held city of Donetsk, with winter coming and food in short supply, there would be ample grounds for Mr Putin to launch a “humanitarian operation”, which would end up as a permanent occupation.

This diplomatic balance has been complicated by the European Union’s dithering on how to increase the pressure on Russia. The easy steps have been taken: 72 Russians and Ukrainians deemed responsible for the occupation of Crimea and the uprising in eastern Ukraine have been targeted with travel bans and asset freezes.

The next step, far more damaging in the long-term, is sanctions against Russian companies or sectors of the economy. This has highlighted the major European countries’ embarrassing economic dependence on Russia, at a time when Europe is just emerging from a deep recession. Germany, Italy and several other countries rely on Russia for gas supplies. London is where the Russian rich invest their savings. France has a €1.2 billion euro deal to supply two helicopter carriers to the Russian navy.

Sanctions involving any one of these sectors would be “unbalanced” – forcing individual member states to bear disproportionate burden – while sanctions in all of them would have a catastrophic effect on EU-Russia trade and investment. Everyone in Europe still wants to do business with Mr Putin.

In America, the loudest voices want to deliver a death blow to Putinism. Hawks argue that Mr Putin’s posturing as an oil-fuelled superpower is built on sand. The economy is going nowhere, wealthy Russians are sending their money abroad as fast as they can ($75 billion so far this year), and the energy revolution in the US will condemn Russia to long-term decline.

Mr Obama, who is trying to coordinate policy with the dithering Europeans, is branded a ditherer too. He too is keeping his bridges open with Mr Putin; he has been careful not to accuse the Russians of firing the missile, but only of irresponsibly providing weapons to the separatists.

Mr Putin’s control of the narrative has collapsed. One of the separatist leaders, Alexander Khodakovsky, has come close to admitting that the “volunteers” received a BUK mobile missile launcher from Russia, and then spirited it back to Russia after they mistakenly used it to shoot down the Malaysian airliner.

Mr Putin’s approval ratings rose to the dizzy heights of 80 per cent in the wake of his takeover of Crimea. The second act is not turning out so well. The unvanquished champion is looking for a ladder to climb down without looking defeated.

The European position is weak and self-interested at a time when so many countries whose citizens died in the plane disaster want justice and the truth. But diplomacy has to manage the need for stability in eastern Europe, as well as the demands of the bereaved.

By recklessly providing deadly anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels, Mr Putin has exposed himself to the risk of becoming an international pariah. But he can avoid that status.

Mr Putin needs to give clear assurances that he will allow Ukraine to exist as an independent country. He believes that it is an “artificial state” in which Russia has the right to interfere. If he can convince the West that he will allow Ukraine to be put back together, diplomacy can prevent more war and Russian isolation. That is a worthwhile goal. There is business to do over Syria and Iran in which Russia has to part to play.

Life will not be easy for Mr Putin. An impartial investigation will expose the mechanisms of “hybrid war” that Russia has used in Ukraine. Families of the bereaved will launch legal actions against Russian officials and military officers. But that is the price he will have to pay for his gamble in eastern Ukraine.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps