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.