Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Putin’s Tipping Point?

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.

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    1. CommentedDavid Morgan

      Regardless of who shot the plane down Putin has the blame as he annexed the Crimea and caused the civil war in the East of the Ukraine. Putin is a very dangerous man, when Russia is found to be involved in this it should be kicked of a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

    2. CommentedShoshon Tama-Sweet

      As Russia fires artillery and missiles from Russian territory, the world watches and learns. There will be a coming period of imposed isolation for Russia, economically and politically. Whether it prolongs or shortens Putin's rule is beside the point, in many ways- Putin has shown himself to be a threat to peace and order in Europe. Of course, the Russian people will pay the price, with an extended delay of economic growth and limited global integration, trapped by leaders trapped in the past.

    3. CommentedDouglas Costello

      KAL7 while similar is different. It was Russia itself that was a fault, now it is a proxy of Russia and Putin is not directly involved but should bear responsibility.

      Crimea and the Ukraine are the means of diverting Russian attention and stirring national pride but in the longer term will generate more dissatisfaction if Putin fails to grow the Russian economy and move the population to better conditions. This is beginning to look as though it is mission impossible for Putin.

    4. CommentedRoger Houghton

      I cannot agree with the author's opinion on KAL7. A British academic named Johnson wrote a detailed and persuasive book on the subject of the shooting-down of that airliner and his conclusion, on a balance of probabilities, was that the Korean CIA, acting under superior orders, ordered the pilots to fly into Russia to gauge the defensive system there.

    5. CommentedVidvuds BELDAVS

      It does not matter who pulled the trigger on MH17. The Ukrainian plane shot down on the first day of the ceasefire with 49 people murdered was no less a tragedy than MH17. Instead of calling President Poroshenko to offer condolences as Putin did with the PM of Malaysia, Putin had the gall to call for Ukraine to negotiate with the killers. The fact that Russia has taken no action to discourage fund-raising for attacks on the legitimate government of Ukraine - prominent Russian political leaders even participate in these events - makes Russia complicit in the deaths of the victims of MH17. Russian citizens such as Col. Strelkov that have entered Ukraine to shoot down planes and wreak other mayhem are glorified in the Russian state-controlled media demonstrating government approval for their murderous actions. The "separatists" are led by Russian citizens with a stated mission to seize territory from the legitimate government of Ukraine so that this territory can be later annexed by Russia. This is an attempt at territorial conquest by Russia in the 21st century. It is clear that President Putin did not order the downing of MH17. It is also clear, however, that he bears political responsibility. If he was concerned about Russia and the Russian people he should resign after setting the stage for a successor that could take Russia on a different course. As the architect of the fiasco with Ukraine he does not have the capability to lead Russia away from disaster. But, there are worse options for Russia in the wings whether Zhirinovski or other extremists. Putin would have to neutralize them and help position his sucessor for survival against extreme Russian nationalism.

    6. Commentedchris wauton

      Remember also the American navy vessel the USS Vincennes that shot town Iran Air flight 655 on Jul 3rd 1988 killing 290 in the Reagan era.

        CommentedM. Seferoviç

        Steve Rodriguez:

        I am not sure what intention you had when you downplayed the killing of many civilians however I will still give my view on your contribution.

        The Vincennes shot down a civilian passenger flight killing almost 300 civilians in a plane which at that time was travelling through Iranian air space within the Iranian territorial waters. Whether Iran was one of the belligerents is irrelevant when comparing the culpability of the parties involved. Shooting down passenger flights is considered illegal from the standpoint of international law regardless of the "plane's nationality". It does not take any blame from the accused parties either.

        This is also true when coming to the US' defense by asserting that it was a declared participant under a UN mandate which in this case this is an irrelevant objection.

        Additionally when arguing about the role the US fulfilled by stationing their war ships one should also discuss the role they played and their responsibility in the Iran-Iraq war fundamentally.

        Furthermore I think you should reconsider your claim about the way the US and Russia handled the incidents because the US in fact were accused of lying, covering up and manipulating.

        There is one question I still have for you. When was it proved that Russia shot down MH-17?

        CommentedMarc Sargen

        In the end, the downing is less of an issue than what happened afterward. This would not be such an issue, if they had said "OMG, what have we done! This was a horrible mistake. What can we do to try to make up for this horrible accident?"

        CommentedSteve Rodriguez

        The Vincennes was shooting at a plane whose flight path emanated from one of the warring parties - MH17 was not; The Iranian civilian airliner was coming from one of the declared combatants in a declared war - MH17 was a Malaysian plane flying with civilians from Europe, neither party was a party to the conflict nor were they a contiguous state; the US was a declared participant under UN mandate to protect Kuwaiti transport ships from the conflict - the Russians and separatists are not; MOST importantly, the US did not lie, cover, change wikipedia pages, deny, etc., they admitted the event immediately and paid millions of dollars in an international court of law. The only similarity is that both planes were civilian.

    7. CommentedPaulo Sérgio

      IMHO, and a really unwanted example to make a point from, the outrageous shooting down of MH17 highlights the inability of the EU to think strategically. The organs of the body tasked with regulation of air transport, Eurocontrol and EASA, were not in some room together with military informants about risks not in some far off place, but on the EU doorstep. The Ukraine is not some distant state.

      Trade, the movement of people and goods, within the EU and externally are key to European cohesion. The crisis in The Ukraine has underscored a need for European leaders to rethink the security of the their trade and interaction with the world. The EU need not bolster defense budgets to secure its trade routes, it need only monitor them, and use its soft power, as a union, to force a retraction of aggressive behavior on its doorstep. EU soft power exceeds that of Russia by a long, long distance. France should put on hold the sale of any weapons to Russia, including the Vladivostok.

      The EU needs to think strategically. And as a team. All of the organs of unified Europe need to cooperate with each other on matters pertinent to European security. Governments need to put the integrity of the Union as a top priority for it to function as such.

    8. CommentedVanja Ivancevic

      I agree with you that support for the annexation of Crimea will weaken, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence for this, but you refer to Levada polls from Dec 2013. A quick look at their website ( shows clearly the significant boost in popularity the Putin government received as a result of this military action.

    9. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      The "downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine" on July 17 reminds Ms Khrushcheva of a passenger plane shot down by Soviet forces off Sakhalin Island in September 1983. The plane, Korean Air Flight 007 with 293 passengers on board, flew accidentally into Russian air space. It was not the last time that a commercial aircraft had been targeted by mistake.
      Ms Khrushcheva points out that "the incident (in 1983) was a tipping point" and set off a political cascade in the Soviet Union. While its apparatus was showing signs of "advanced decrepitude", there was a period of detente with the West, when Moscow signed the SALT arms control agreement in 1972 with the US. Yet Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and ended it. The Afghan war was costly and the crippling gerontocracy saw the deaths of four leaders - Kosygin, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko - between 1980-85.
      One year after Gorbachev became president in 1988, the "Revolutions of 1989" saw the toppling of Soviet-imposed communist regimes in central and eastern Europe. An unprecedented series of mass public rallies led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. In 1991 Gorbachev resigned, as the Soviet Union broke up.
      Ms Khrushcheva says " 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". The incident in 1983 "ended the career of Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, Chief of the General Staff and a hardliner of the hardest sort". The Soviet regime before 1991 was militarily strong but politically stagnant and economically weak. Russia today will not collapse, should there be consequences for Putin.
      No doubt the downing of MH 17 is a "tipping point" too, but more in the Ukraine conflict. The waning "public support" Putin enjoys at home will only be evident, when sanctions bite. Whether they will go far enough to hurt him, remains to be seen.
      The world has witnessed in recent days what a bunch of thugs, that Moscow has hired to destabilise Ukraine. As they seem to have more hubris than brains, they make terrible mistakes. Putin has denied all Russia's responsiblity and blamed Kiev for creating the conditions that led to the tragic incident. Yet the pro-Russian separatists have constantly refused to cooperate with Kiev and allegedly imposed a no-fly zone in Eastern Ukraine. Following the crash of MH 17, their self-proclaimed leader Igor Strelkov is said to have written on the Russian equivalent of Facebook, Vkontakte, claiming, “we have just shot down an AN-26 airplane…Haven’t we warned them – don't fly in our sky.”
      If Russia pulls back support to the separatists, the tragedy may potentially create an opportunity for a peace settlement with Ukraine. This will allow Putin a face-saving off-ramp. If it doesn't, then the West needs to draw a sharper line with Russia. How the key players react in the coming days and weeks will show the direction Ukraine is heading and the nature of relations between Russia and the West.