The downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile, killing nearly 300 people, would appear at first blush to demonstrate that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s arrogant self-assurance has morphed into something akin to megalomaniacal irrationality. Putin’s claims that Russia has not infiltrated the country with “advisors” and weapons has been exposed as the deceitfulness that most of the international community has always suspected, and now that he has real blood on his hands, one wonders if his next move suggests that any learning is going on in his head.
The aircraft that is believed to have been brought down by Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have already boasted of having shot down several Ukrainian military aircraft—including one just one hour after MH17 was downed. While U.S. intelligence states that the Buk missile was fired from rebel-controlled territory and likely with the assistance of Russian advisers, the Kremlin’s propaganda arm in the U.S., RT News, is predictably claiming that Russian intelligence is pointing toward the Ukrainians as the culprits; interestingly, Russia has “surprisingly” detailed photos of Ukrainian military positions—no doubt passed on to the rebels.
Not that Russian unaccountable use of force is anything new; one may recall that in 1983, a Russian fighter shot down KAL 007, killing all 269 people aboard. During the height of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War muscle-flexing, Russian paranoia was peeking, and fears that the aircraft was on a “spy” mission was believed by Russian air defense command. However, despite subsequent Russian denials, it was clear to the at least one fighter sent to shadow the plane that the it was a Boeing civilian airliner—which was not transmitted to Russian military controllers monitoring the flight—and the plane was shot down over international waters. While they did deviate briefly over “sensitive” Russian airspace, flight transcripts indicate two things: One, that the Korean pilots were completely unaware of their error or the danger they were in right up until the moment the plane was fired upon and still had no clue as to what caused the damage to the plane, and two, the Russians intended to shoot first, ask questions later approach to events; no attempt was ever made to contact the airliner or warn it—it was simply assumed to be on a “spy” mission.
Putin has gained an unwarranted reputation as a “strong” leader who takes “decisive” action based on “experience” that has given him a “I told you so” attitude about world affairs. Obviously this plays well domestically to an audience that largely still sees itself as “east” rather than “west,” and to Republican lawmakers here who see his moves as demonstrating the “weakness” of the Obama administration. But caution is sometimes a virtue, and that is something that Putin—the former KGB operative whose actions bespeak of his “training”—has proven himself more of blunderer than possessing anything approaching competency in statecraft. He has made is a series of policy decisions that has called into question his ability to accurately gauge the temperature of world opinion, or the consequences of actions.
Russia’s missteps include the supplying of nuclear technology to Iran. Fear of Iran gaining nuclear weapons isn’t new; when Iran began a nuclear program under the Shah in the 1970s, it was believed that he would seek to develop a nuclear bomb if other “second world” countries like Pakistan and India did. The Ayatollah Khomeini was suspicious of nuclear power and weapons, but Iran resumed its nuclear ambitions in the 1990s, largely with the help of the Russians, the Chinese and a rogue Pakistani scientist—all who supplied technologies needed to mine, process and enrich nuclear material, as well as heavy water facilities that are essential for creating a nuclear weapon. The West and its restrictions made it seem an unreliable “partner” in these nuclear schemes. There is considerable concern over the ability to “enrich” uranium, which is the process of converting ore into the “purer” state needed to develop a viable bomb. In fact, there was no knowledge of Iran’s enrichment program until a dissident Iranian group reported it in 2003; despite that, Putin refused George Bush’s demand that Russia cease building an $800 million nuclear power plant in Iran.
Iran has continuously claimed that its nuclear program is “peaceful,” yet nevertheless has conducted ‘research” in secret and continues to insist that work that goes beyond “peaceful” means is within its rights. Russia itself does not view a nuclear-powered Iran a threat per se, but has chosen to believe that its pursuit of nuclear weapon is less their problem than it is to the U.S. and Israel, which in Russia’s anti-West mindset is still a matter of power politics. And besides, Iran can cause problems for Russia if it so chooses, by creating instability in the Islamic states on Russia’ southern borders.
While Putin justifiably points to the emergence of Islamic extremists in Syria as a reason to aid the current regime there, Russia’s supplying of weapons to Iraq in 2012, following the U.S. pull-out, ironically did little to stop ISIS and other Sunni extremists from creating havoc and claiming much of the country, then or now when they are jumping in to supply more sophisticated weapons to the current corrupt Shiite-dominated government. Both U.S. and Russian weapons continue to fall into the hand of insurgents, which obviously explains Obama’s reluctance to supply more arms to Iraq, while Russia’s own seemingly risky move is in line with its perceived interests, such as maintaining relations with Shiite-dominated Iran; yet without pressure that is needed on Iraqi government, it seems only a matter of time when the fallacy of supplying them with sophisticated arms will be born out.
Russia’s interferences in former Soviet “republics” and it former “allies,” such as Georgia and Estonia, and its nuclear threats toward Poland, that demonstrate a desire to move back in time, rather than forward. But these activities are small potatoes compared to its actions against the Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea after a deliberate campaign of fomenting pro-Russian dissent was just the beginning of an effort to re-acquire former Soviet states. Sanctions imposed on Russia are apparently insufficient to dissuade Putin from sowing chaos in pro-Russian factions in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s belief that the West is its “enemy” is clear when he tried to impose a coercive “deal” in which Putin hoped to turn the Ukraine from EU cooperation into a Russian puppet state, in exchange for a few billion dollars. The price of sovereignty for the Ukraine now is eventual partition, and loss of autonomy in the face of Russian threats.
Putin apparently believes that Western economic and diplomatic sanctions are “sustainable,” since Russia has sizable oil reserves, and its otherwise weak and undiversified economy has been buoyed by the influx of petro-dollars. Yet Putin failure to create a strong democratic basis for government and support free-market capitalism with that excess money—preferring instead to enrich himself and his supporters, while paying for foreign misadventure—is long-term short thinking. According to a report by Bloomberg, half of Russia’s government budget comes from oil revenue. Putin is both a captive of his own past and of the system of state-controlled “capitalism” he has built: “He appears to believe that such a huge increase in defense spending will kill two birds with one stone: shore-up Russia’s great power status and, as he wrote in Foreign Policy, ‘feed the engines of modernization in our economy, creating real growth.’” The failure of this policy was the primary cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and under Ronald Reagan, this country’s domestic manufacturing base took a hit that it has not only never recovered from, but continues to lose ground to countries like China, which shows knows no interests but its own.
While it would seem that it would be in Russia’s interest to more closely align itself with the West, Russia under Putin continues to orient itself more toward Eastern despotism. Russia still refuses to see itself as a “European” state with the same interests as other European states. Under Putin’s autocratic rule it has chosen to play the “spoiler”; rather than cooperate with the rest of Europe (let alone the U.S.), it has chosen to work to destabilize those interests, at not only the West’s peril, but ultimately its own.