The terrible tragedy of MH17 may just have handed Valdimir Putin the leverage he needs to put Russia’s ultra-nationalists back in the box.
Putin is often portrayed in the Western media – especially since the Ukrainian crisis erupted in late February – as a ruthless and tyrannical dictator. Undoubtedly Putin can be ruthless – on the face of it, he appears at least moderately psychoticist on that Dimension of Temperament – and some elements of his regime could justifiably be described as ‘tyrannical’…but he is far from being the omnipotent sole ruler of Russia he is often caricatured as in the Western media.
Because this dictator stereotype persists and not all journalists are ‘investigative’ enough, Russian internal politics is chronically under-reported in the West. Additionally being secretive is the norm for Putin, the ex-KGB officer. He’s no Boris Yeltsin to wash his dirty underwear in public. (Which Boris literally almost did on several occasions, he was so drunk!) So it’s not that easy to find out what’s going on in and around the Kremlin…but, a little scouting around the internet will throw up blogs and forums which, ostensibly at least, give us some more insight into what is going on in top-level Russian politics.
Undoubtedly Putin is a very powerful man, an arch manipulator – I have postulated that Putin may even be a 2nd Tier thinker. The meme that all 2nd Tier thinking is beneficent, that all 2nd Tier thinkers are like little Buddhas, is simply not supported by the little hard evidence we have of what 2nd Tier thinking is.
Like all rulers, Putin has advisers who jockey with each other and compete for influence. And since Russia is a faux-democracy at least, many of those competing advisers have genuine independent influence in the Douma and even their own electoral bases. Others occupy senior positions in the civil service and the military. Yet others are philosophers and political ideologues who publish their views in all kinds of social and formal media with little or no restraint but are often able to tap into and amplify popular feeling.
On the ‘doves’ side, Putin has Dmitry Medvedev. Their closeness was demonstrated 2008-2012 when, to comply with the constitution inhibiting a third successive term, Medvedev subbed as president while Putin continued to pull the strings behind the façade. According to blogger Pietro A Shakarian, Medvedev opposed Russian intervention in the Crimea and has been instrumental in counselling Putin against military intervention in eastern Ukraine.
On the ‘hawks’ side, there are ultra-nationalist writers like Aleksandr Dugin and Aleksandr Prokhanov and politicians like Dmitry Rogozin. Some of these have taunted Putin publicly for cowardice, for not intervening militarily in eastern Ukraine, reports the Associated Press’ Vladimir Isachenkov. In late June Putin’s economic adviser, Sergei Glazyev, topped a series of bellicose statements with the proposal to send Russian military jets to protect the rebels in eastern Ukraine from government air raids. The Kremlin disavowed his words, saying Glazyev was expressing his private opinion.
Undoubtedly the most difficult nationalist Putin is faced with, according to Shakarian, is Igor Strelkov, self-proclaimed commander of the pro-Russian separatist forces in Ukraine’s east. As Igor Girkin he was a commander in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence, and was notable for service in the Chechnya conflicts. He was involved in the virtually-bloodless Russian takeover of the Crimea, after which he turned his attention to the ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s east.
With or without the direct knowledge of the top echelons in the Kremlin, Strelkov will have the contacts and sympathisers in Russia’s armed forces to get hold of some serious military hardware. The first sign of such hardware being supplied to the rebels was the outdated but still formidable T-64 Russian tanks which turned up in Snizhne and Makiiva in June – as discussed in 2 Presidents, 2 Crises. Though they too are old technology, getting hold of BUK SA-11 missiles is a considerable step up the ladder in capability terms. Given what Glazyev called for, it’s far from inconceivable that sympathisers in the Russian military might have taken a small handful of BUKs across the border. It would certainly help explain the ease with which the rebels have downed several Ukrainian military aircraft in the week or so preceding the MH17 catatstrophe. A BUK was videoed in and around Snizhne – about 15km from the crash site – a couple of hours before MH17 was blown up; and 2 low loaders allegedly transporting BUKs were photographed crossing from Ukraine into Russia shortly after the crash.
Along with all the forensic evidence the Americans and others are producing, perhaps the single most powerful enditement of the pro-Russian separatists was a message which appeared on Strelkov’s Donetsk People’s Republic account on VK, the Russian equivalent of Facebook: “The plane has just been taken down somewhere around Torez. It lays there behind the Progress mine. We did warn you – do not fly in ‘our sky.’” The message was rapidly deleted but not before it was captured as a screenshot by a number of sources. It would appear the rebels had thought they were targeting another large transport plane.
Additionally several experts have expressed the view that the pro-Russian separatists would have lacked the expertise to operate a BUK and, therefore, must have had help. Retired US Army Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly, a former director of the US Missile Defence Agency, is reported by the Los Angeles Times’ David Willman, to have said: “Whoever did this wasn’t someone that had a little bit of training and some Russian advisers told him how to do it. These people were trained on it – for a long time. The fact is, they shot one (missile) and they hit. They’re pretty proficient. If it wasn’t Russians or Russian advisers, it had to be former Russian air-defence personnel. Someone had to be formally trained in order to use it.”
The questions the world wants to the answer to, then, are:
- How far do Putin and the top echelons of the Kremlin go in backing the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine?
- If they are not directly responsible for supplying the T-64s and the BUKs, does that mean there are nationalist elements in the Russian military who are out of control?
- If there are, can Putin bring them back under control to develop a viable peace plan for eastern Ukraine?
Putin the nationalist
Vladimir Putin is a Russian nationalist and his mission is to restore Russia’s greatness. He made that perfectly clear to the Douma on his appointment as prime minister in 1999: “Russia has been a great power for centuries and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest …. We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored.”
In vMEMETIC terms, this is PURPLE/BLUE nationalism fired up by the RED vMEME’s need for esteem and respect from others. Putin, in part, gave Russia its self-respect back by returning BLUE discipline into public life after the chaotic and financially-ruinous years of Yeltsin’s presidency. As Putin built Russia back up and the country strengthened economically, inevitably part of making Russia great again would be to have a presence on the world stage.
Tacit Western approval of the violent revolution in Kiev in January and the ousting of democratically-elected but Russian-leaning president Viktor Yanukovych irked Putin. In an apparently-heartfelt 18 March speech, he attacked the West for disrespecting international law and doing “as they please… only they can ever be right”.
In the 11 years from 1999 to 2009, NATO had expanded East to incorporate a number of the former Soviet Union’s former Warsaw Pact partners, eventually even the Baltic states, once an integral part of the Soviet Union. Keeping the Ukraine out of NATO’s and the European Union’s hands was vital if Putin’s talk of Russia’s ‘zones of interest’ was to have any credibility left in Europe – and with his own nationalists back home.
How threatening NATO/EU expansion East was to Putin’s ambitions for Russia and to his own position in face of growing nationalism is something Western leaders have been ignorant of or incapable of appreciating. The insensitivity of Western leaders to the Russian’s leader’s needs was epitomised by the June partnership deals the EU signed with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – all once integral parts of the Soviet Union. Putin could not afford to let Ukraine go easily.
The annexation of Crimea, with only one recorded fatality was a master stroke. John Simpson (2014b), a veteran of many war zones, was so impressed he described it as “the smoothest invasion of modern times. It was over before the outside world realised it had even started.”
In the wake of Crimea, a Gallup’s Julie Ray & Neli Esipova reported Putin had polled 83% approval, up from 54% the previous year.
But Crimea released the ‘beast’ of Russian nationalism. The day after the Crimean referendum The Guardian’s Oliver Laughland, Conal Urquhart & Alan Yuhas reported Russian nationalists streaming across the border into Donetsk and other eastern cities to stir up their sizeable ethnic Russian populations. We now know that Igor Strelkov was one of them.
There can be little doubt the eastern Ukrainian ethnic Russians getting all fired up to protest for their rights and call for Russia to annexe them too served a purpose for the Machiavellian Putin. While all eyes were focused on that festering mess, Russia quietly but quickly ‘Russianised’ the Crimea, making it all that much more difficult to go back – a move the majority of the Crimeans would almost certainly resist. Putin could damp down the pro-Russian fires in eastern Ukraine in return for a package. Such a package would include the ethnic Russians having their language and citizenship rights respected – which they certainly haven’t been – greater regional autonomy and given protection from Ukrainian nationalist militias like Right Sector…and, of course, Crimea now being Russian tacitly acknowledged. Such a package would boost Russian national pride and further strengthen Putin’s powerbase in his own country.
The signs are there that Putin has been trying to dampen down the fires in eastern Ukraine. First, he spoke out against independence referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk; then he recognised Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine’s new president; he encouraged the rebels to join in the ceasefire Poroshenko unilaterally declared; latterly, he has asked the Russian parliament to revoke the authority it only gave him on 1 March to intervene militarily in the Ukraine.
Poroshenko’s insistence on defeating the rebels militarily has rather undermined Putin’s position and enraged Russian nationalists who see their brethren being heavily outgunned. The result has been the T-64s, the BUKs and goodness knows what else slipping across the border to balance things a little bit more in the separatists’ favour. No wonder Putin’s first reaction to the downing of MH17 was widely reported – eg: Time’s David Stout – as: “I would like to note that this tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in that country, or in any case, if hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine.”
The way the conflict has developed in eastern Ukraine does not show the meticulous planning and cunning of the Crimean operation – nor, for that matter, how Putin rode in to rescue Barrack Obama from his own ‘red line’ disaster last Summer over Syria’s chemical weapons. Rather, it’s a complete and bloody mess triggered by various RED-driven warlords exploiting PURPLE tribalism for their own power. It’s highly doubtful Putin actually wants the eastern Ukraine. It’s too ethnically diverse and ethnic Russians are not in a clear majority. (But his PURPLE/BLUE nationalist vMEME harmonic would like to see his brethren’s rights respected there – just as he would like to see them respected in the Baltic states which also have sizeable minority ethnic Russian populations….and being the champion of the post-Soviet Russian diaspora clearly plays well to the Russian electorate!)
Putin appears to have made 2 critical errors of judgement – both of which indicate he hasn’t been thinking 2nd Tier. Firstly, he appears to have underestimated how difficult it would be to get the nationalists under control – with the result that he now has MH17 to deal with. Secondly, he appears not to have factored in just how determined Poroshenko would become to defeat the rebels militarily.
Putin almost certainly would like a face-saving/ethnic Russian-respecting way out of the Ukraine. Russia’s economy has taken quite a hit over the past few months as Western Capitalists have withdrawn investment. Capital worth $75B(£44B) has left Russia so far this year – a much higher rate of haemorrhage than last year. Russia is teetering on the brink of recession. The economy grew just 1.3% last year and did not grow at all between April and June. BBC News (2014c) reports that Putin allies in the business world, like Gennady Timchenko, owner of Novatek, Russia’s second biggest gas producer, and Igor Sechin, chairman of the huge state-owned oil firm Rosneft, are suffering with travel bans and Western banks freezing their assets. Putin needs to get back to sorting out the economy which, in a globalised world, means keeping reasonably ‘in’ with the other big economies.
The way out
Isachenkov has a good handle on Putin’s position, asserting that, with “increasing signs of discord at the top of the Russian leadership…it is far from clear that his lieutenants would carry out his orders” if Putin were to make large and overt concessions in the Ukraine.
However, Isachenkov was writing pre-MH17. The tragic loss of the plane may just be the game changer Putin needs to get the leash back on Russian nationalism.
The Guardian’s Natalia Antanova recorded a number of interesting comments from Muscovites about the Ukrainian separatists, following the MH17 downing, including:-
Kontantin (#1): “It won’t be [the rebels] paying the price, it will be the Kremlin. Because it is Moscow, in spite of many denials issued by representatives, that is believed by the entire world to be [the rebels’] chief sponsor and protector.”
Vitaly:. “…undisciplined morons… I don’t even know what their goals are. It all seems pointless. They’re trying to drag Russia into world war three. Fuck them.”
Konstantin (#2): “Even if they didn’t bring down the plane, I have no sympathy for these whackjobs.”
Maria: “It’s bad enough that all of these people are dead. But what if the war gets worse and more people die? How far will all of this go?”
While this is simply anecdotal data and can’t be generalised, Antanova’s article works hard to give the impression Moscovites are disgusted by the shooting down of the plane and frightened of a potential military confrontation between the West and Russia over it.
If MH17 is leading to a swing in public opinion against the separatists, then that increases Putin’s options in dealing with the ultra-nationalists and working towards a viable peace in the Ukraine.
After days of rebel militiamen restricting access to the crash site, reports have come in over the past day or so of the rebels being more cooperative with the crash investigators and, of course, MH17’s black boxes have been handed over. Although there is emerging evidence that the crash site has been tampered with “on an industrial scale”, according to Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott (as reported by David Li, Sophia Rosenbaum & Bruce Golding for The New York Post, the more cooperative attitude of the militiamen could signal a change in the way the Kremlin is approaching the separatists in general and the MH17 downing in particular.
Li, Rosenbaum & Golding also cite a CNN report of a senior Ukrainian military official, Vitaly Nayda, saying a Russian military officer had personally pushed the button that blew MH17 out of the sky. However, senior US intelligence officials have now gone on record – eg: The Daily Intelligencer’s Katie Zavadski – as saying there is no direct evidence linking Russia to the missile attack that downed MH17 – though they do say that Russia had “created the conditions” for the incident by supplying weapons to the rebels.
If Putin is using the tragedy to re-establish his control of the Russian side of the eastern Ukrainian conflict, then the West needs to find ways to collaborate with him, rather than look for opportunities to compete with or even humiliate him.
Even if Nayda is correct and a Russian officer was present at the BUK firing that brought down MH17, it would be better to let the Kremlin deal with the perpetrators their way. That could include cooperating with an international criminal investigation and handing Strelkov and his fellow collaborators over for trial or it could involve a Moscow-based show trial. Or it could even involve Strelkov and his collaborators meeting untimely and mysterious deaths….
What Western leaders must not do is treat Putin as though he personally is criminally responsible unless the evidence is absolute. Russia needs a strong man and Putin needs to keep his self-esteem and to be esteemed for his RED to be healthy. He needs to be able to save face. Undermining his RED vMEME, as the West (unintentionally?) so often seems to like to do, will divert his attention down the Spiral/Hierarchy when we want him to be thinking at maximum complexity.
As to the future of the Ukraine, a transparent BLUE process needs to be established to determine what a clear majority of people in the eastern Ukraine want. Perhaps a UN-supervised referendum of perhaps several alternate futures – in Ukraine, in Russia, independent small country, etc – with international guarantees for minority rights. The ultra-nationalists would never have gone for such an idea before because, unlike the Crimea, the population is too ethnically diverse for a pro-Russian victory to be guaranteed. However, the worldwide revulsion over MH17 gives Putin more power to cut out the real extremists and work towards an equitable solution.
The West needs to support him in doing this.