The one emotion most of us who study Russia never associate with the men of the Kremlin is panic. They’re not the type. They’re more like mobsters, prone to say “we have a problem” rather than to freak out. They think everything has a solution, although sometimes that solution might mean someone has to take nine grams of lead behind the ear. They do not raise their voices—my experience is that most Russian tough-guys are mumblers, not yellers—and they get things done, even if the final outcome might lack a certain, say, elegance.
That’s why it’s unusual to see the government of Vladimir Putin, and maybe even Putin himself, panicking over the downing of Malaysian Airline Flight 17. For the first time in a long time, maybe even since Putin’s first election to power, the Russian regime has a problem it cannot solve, one that will cost the Kremlin in both money and reputation.
First, let’s review what’s happened, and use the real-world version of events, rather than the paranoid, flaky stuff coming out of less responsible news outlets (like, say, all of the ones in Russia).
Malaysian Air Flight 17 was crossing the Ukraine-Russia border when it was blown out of the sky. We have a high degree of certainty (and probably more inside the governments of the United States and NATO) that the plane was downed with a BUK anti-air missile system. In fact, it’s starting to look like there was a BUK battery in the area when the airplane was destroyed.
We have a mountain of evidence that the Russians were up to their necks in this. The BUK is a Russian system, found in both Ukraine and Russia, but it looks like the Russians brought some over the border, along with Russian military intelligence guys—the men actually running this “partition Ukraine” operation—and they taught some of the locals, including transplanted mercenary “separatists,” how to use them. The thing is, the BUK is really too complicated to use without adult supervision, and that’s especially true of a battery.
And now we get to the panic. Evidence is mounting not only that the BUK that killed MH17 came from Russia, but that the firing on the airliner was either supervised or ordered, or even operated, by Russian personnel.
If this is the case, the “lone rebel with an itchy trigger finger” theory goes out the window, and the “Russia is running a reckless and undeclared air war inside Ukraine” theory comes into sharp focus. Suddenly, an act of terrorism becomes an act of interstate war, directed with subterfuge and deniability (what my colleague John Schindler has dubbed “Special War”) with the goal of dismembering the Ukrainian state.
Putin, I’m sure, was briefed ahead of time and told that such an accident could never happen.
No, Mr. President, we will sweep any Ukrainian military jets from the sky. Yes, Mr. President, we will control their airspace, and paralyze them, until they accept partition, as we did with Crimea. No, Mr. President, we are professionals and there is no chance of error or detection. We have trained to fight Americans, this will be a piece of cake.
In other words, a slam-dunk. (Assuming the Russians are inclined to basketball metaphors. It’s not really their sport.) And then a few weeks later, some somber-looking, sorry bastard walks in and says: Sir, we have a problem. The briefing begins, and the bad news rolls.
It was our stuff. Our missile. Our goons. Commanded by our officers. Yes, we’ve been caught on camera. Yes, there was some clumsiness on social media. No, we have not allowed anyone near the crash site, but we can’t hold it off forever. The men involved are in hiding. Except Strelkov, who has said the plane was full of dead bodies. (He freelanced that one, sir.)
How far does this go, Mr. President? Well, sir—and here the aide might shuffle some papers uncomfortably to avoid noting that the orders came from the very top—we can deny it all, but sooner or later the trail leads back through military intelligence to special channels in the military, to special channels here in the President’s office, to…well, you know…
At this point, Putin and his advisers have to know the game is up, and thus they have resorted to the only time they remember when they felt really competent and in control of events: the Soviet days. And the stupid, dangerous ideas begin to tumble out, the product of panic rather than policy:
Put out the story that Ukraine was responsible. Suggest the plane was off course and thus imply it was doing something nefarious. (Didn’t we work that angle in the 1983 crash?) Pledge our cooperation, but tell those idiots in Donetsk we want the black boxes in Moscow immediately. Don’t talk to the Western press. Send Churkin to take his obligatory ass-whipping from Sam Power…
But most importantly, keep doubling down on everything.
Make sure the crash site belongs to us and no one else. Obfuscate as much as possible about who was doing what, and where. Suggest the Ukraine military planned this all along. See if you can dig up old stories about that Iranian plane the Americans hit, what was it? Iran 655? Yeah, work that for a while.
None of this will go anywhere. The Russians are busted. To use an American folk saying, they are screwed, chewed, and barbecued. They know it. Someone’s got to go down for this, and there are obvious candidates. The question, as in any Mafia where something’s gone bad, is who rats out whom first. Because sooner or later, all will be known.
So What’s the Fallout?
Panic in Moscow is hard to spot, but even from 6000 miles away, it’s easy to smell, and the metallic stink of fear is rising off the palace offices of the Russian executive as if from the gurneys in a cancer ward on the morning of an operation.
The only question, really, is how far Putin wants to go toward a trade war, economic collapse, further status as a pariah, maybe even open war, only in order to save face. The conventional wisdom is that he has to cut the insurgency loose.
Maybe. But if he doesn’t want to, he may settle for leaving a grinding conflict in place for now, and will claim that any real investigation and closure is impossible. He can then place his hopes in the West’s short attention span, and wait until all this blows over.
That would all work if it were 1975. But it’s not. I suspect the investigation and the tick-tock of the moments before the BUK fire are already clear and widely distributed enough that we have the complete case against the “separatists” with a bill of particulars that stretches right to the rug in front of Putin’s desk.
He knows it, and he knows that we know it. And until he finds a way to square this circle, panic—and more death—will be the order of the day. I wish I had good advice for him to extricate himself. But there isn’t any, and it would not be mine to give even if there were.