NEW YORK – When incompetence in the Kremlin turns murderous, its incumbents can begin to tremble. As news of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine trickled into Russia, people with a long memory recalled the Soviet Union’s attack, 31 years ago this September, on Korean Air Lines Flight 007, and its political consequences.
Back then, the Kremlin first lied to the world by saying that it had nothing to do with the missing KAL plane. Later it claimed that the South Korean jet was on an American spy mission. But, within the Soviet leadership, the incident was a tipping point. It ended the career of Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, Chief of the General Staff and a hardliner of the hardest sort, whose inconsistent and unconvincing efforts to justify the downing of the plane proved deeply embarrassing to the Kremlin.
Ogarkov’s ineptness (and inept mendacity), together with the mounting failure since 1979 of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, exposed the system’s advanced decrepitude. The stagnation that had begun during Leonid Brezhnev’s rule deepened after his death in 1982. His successors, first the KGB’s Yuri Andropov and then the Communist Party Central Committee’s Konstantin Chernenko, not only had one foot in the grave when they came to power, but were also completely unequipped to reform the Soviet Union.
The huge loss of life in Afghanistan (equal to the United States’ losses in Vietnam, but in a far shorter period of time) already suggested to many that the Kremlin was becoming a danger to itself; the attack on a civilian airliner seemed to confirm that emerging view. It was this realization that spurred Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power, as well as support among the leadership for Gorbachev’s reformist policies of perestroika and glasnost.
Of course, history is not destiny, but one can be sure that at least some in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entourage, if not Putin himself, have been thinking about Ogarkov’s failure and its impact on the Soviet elite. After all, Kremlin leaders, Putin included, define themselves through what was, not what could be.
Indeed, Putin’s rationale for annexing Crimea closely resembles Brezhnev’s reasoning for invading Afghanistan: to confound enemies seeking to surround the country. In 2004, speaking to Russian veterans about the Afghan invasion, Putin explained that there were legitimate geopolitical reasons to protect the Soviet Central Asian border, just as in March he cited security concerns to justify his Ukrainian land grab.
In the Brezhnev era, expansionist policies reflected the country’s new energy-derived wealth. Putin’s military build-up and modernization of the past decade was also fueled by energy exports. But Russia’s latest energy windfall has masked Putin’s incompetent economic management, with growth and government revenues now entirely reliant on the hydrocarbons sector.
Moreover, Putin’s incompetence extends far beyond the economy. His security forces remain brutal and unaccountable; in some parts of the country, they have merged with criminal gangs. His managed judiciary provides no comfort to ordinary people; and the country’s military installations, submarines, oilrigs, mining shafts, hospitals, and retirement homes regularly blow up, collapse, or sink, owing to neglect and zero liability.
When public support for Putin’s annexation of Crimea wanes – as it will – his failings will shine more starkly in the light of the MH17 catastrophe. If the Russian state functioned well, Putin could continue to withstand pressure from opposition leaders. But the opposition’s charge that Putin’s regime is composed of “swindlers and thieves” will resonate more strongly, because Russians can now see the results all around them.
By making himself, in effect, the state, Putin, like the gerontocracy that collapsed with Gorbachev’s rise, is increasingly viewed as responsible for all state failures. And though thoughtful Russians may be hostages to Putin’s arrogance and blunders, the rest of the world is not. Indeed, his partners – particularly the other BRICS countries (Brazil, India, China, and South Africa) – are now unlikely to be able to turn a blind eye to his contempt for international law and for his neighbors’ national sovereignty, as they did during their recent Brazilian summit. And Europe’s last blinders about Putin seem to have fallen, with the result that serious sanctions are almost certain to be imposed.
Putin is only 61, a decade younger than the leaders who led the Soviet Union to the precipice, and the constitution permits him to remain in power for at least another ten years. But with GDP up by just 1.3% in 2013 – and with sanctions likely to hasten the economy’s decline – patriotic pride will not be able to shield him much longer.
By overplaying its hand in Afghanistan and lying to the world about the downing of KAL 007, the Soviet regime exposed and accelerated the rot that made its collapse inevitable. There is no reason to believe in a different fate for Putin’s effort to re-establish Russia as an imperial power.