Vladimir Putin’s shadow war is no longer. For months, anti-Kiev militants—a collection of disaffected ethnic Russians from eastern Ukraine, nationalist volunteers from Russia, and tourist mercenaries from across the former Soviet Union—have fought a grinding battle with the Ukrainian state. Their grievances and fears were local and often genuine, but the money, supplies, propaganda, and diplomatic cover were Russian. The war was an extension of the postmodern and cynical world of Putin-era politics—in which the only thing that matters is the accumulation and preservation of power. It was a fight as murky as it was grim; and among civilians trapped in besieged cities between the two ragtag and poorly trained military forces, casualties piled up.
The response in Washington and European capitals was outrage without action—concern about the dangers of Putin’s proxy war but no ideas or will to stop it. With the shooting down on July 17 of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777 headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, the shadow war was brought into the light. If Putin chooses, the disaster of MH17 could provide a way out of the dangerous, increasingly counterproductive conflict he’s been intent on stoking. But doing so would cut against his instincts.
The details of how Flight 17 exploded and crashed into a field, killing 298 passengers, may never be fully clear. What evidence is available suggests a sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system—an SA-11 Buk, or “beech”—was fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, just a few miles from the Russian border. Militia commanders on the ground, perhaps with training from Russian military and intelligence operatives, appear to have thought they were shooting at a Ukrainian An-26 military transport plane.
From the beginning, separatist forces have been in charge of the crash scene, which quickly devolved into a foul and disorganized mess—quite likely on purpose, to spoil any chance of a proper investigation and to remove or destroy incriminating evidence. If the Russian-backed rebels can be declared conclusively guilty of anything—and they may yet be found culpable for much more—it is of being disrespectful to the victims, allowing their bodies to rot in the midsummer heat. (It was six days before the remains arrived in Holland.) Valuable sources of information have disappeared. The handover of the plane’s flight-data recorders to the Malaysian authorities who traveled to Donetsk was an odd, theatrical spectacle, all the more so because the rebels claimed the day before that they didn’t possess them at all.
That Putin is doing little to facilitate a serious investigation by wielding his influence over the rebels is angering the Obama administration, not to mention Europeans and their leaders. In a late-night address, after hours on the phone with David Cameron, François Hollande, and Angela Merkel, Putin—who looked tired and on edge—only called vaguely for an investigation into the crash, while warning against countries using the crisis for “mercenary political goals.” He’s hoping the world’s attention moves on. Delaying and deflecting has worked for Putin before, but further inaction will test U.S. and European patience more than his easier-to-mask interventions in Ukraine to date. That would spur a new round of sanctions that could push his struggling economy into recession. More conclusive proof that the separatists, in any way aided by Russia, were behind the attack could poison Russia’s relations with the West to a level of tension unprecedented in the post-Soviet era.
For Putin, this means the status quo is no longer feasible—he will either have to abandon his proxy war in Ukraine and give up on the rebel forces he’s used to back the Kremlin’s policy goals, or he will push even harder against the West, steeling himself and his country for a long-term standoff that could result in Russia becoming isolated and weakened. Either scenario will be a great test of a leader whose 14-year tenure has been marked by craftiness and an ability to play events to his advantage. With the downing of MH17, Putin risks being caught up in events beyond his control, a nimble tactician with no moves left to play.
He’s been engaged in a dangerous high-stakes gamble for months. It began in late February, when he interpreted the fall of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a leader he personally loathed but knew he could always buy off, as the culmination of a Western-organized coup. His first reaction, visceral and emotional, was to retake Crimea—providing a measure of historical revenge that salved the injury of the breakup of the Soviet empire. Beyond that, Putin wanted to secure a post-Yanukovych order for Ukraine that would pose no threat to Russia or his rule.
He seized on the discontent of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and used the Russian state-media machine to create support for “people’s republics.” At once real and make-believe, these breakaway territories were meant to be bargaining chips he could use with Ukraine and the West, a way to maintain permanent disorder and keep the new leadership in Kiev from consolidating power.
But as time went on, the violence and disorder allowed paramilitaries in the rebel-held regions to create their own momentum. The Kremlin tried to maintain leverage, as militia commanders began to resemble warlords, using the threat of force and access to resources to gain influence on the ground. Still, the overall chaos served Moscow’s ultimate aim: keeping Ukraine weak and bloodied.
After deciding not to extend a cease-fire earlier in July, Ukraine stepped up what it called its “antiterrorist operation” in the eastern part of the country, at times through the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas. Pro-Russian forces took heavy losses. Putin risked seeing the rebels effectively wiped out. Following his own logic, he had no choice but to step up assistance.
The potential costs of transferring more weapons and even using Russian forces directly were huge—but in Putin’s worldview, they were small compared with the geopolitical catastrophe of seeing Ukraine and its Western backers achieve victory. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that in the days before the shoot-down, Russia sent a convoy with tanks, artillery, and armored personal carriers over the border. The SA-11 missile system may well have been part of the transfer. What’s clear is that, as all sides admit, the weapon is so complex that it requires professional assistance to operate.
If Putin wants to stave off world pariah status and economic sanctions that could imperil the stability of his rule, he’ll have to at least be seen to be making conciliatory moves. Under such a scenario, it would be impossible to continue to provide heavy weapons to rebel fighters and allow volunteers to cross the border into Ukraine. With the flow of money, arms, and fighters shut off, it will only be a matter of time before Kiev defeats the separatists. The end could be bloody, and costly for the civilian population of Donetsk, the last stronghold of the rebels, but in a purely military contest, pro-Kiev forces would achieve a battlefield victory.
Putin, emotional and impulsive, has never been one to back down, but his Ukraine policies have put him in a corner, not least inside Russia itself. The annexation of Crimea and talk of “Novorossiya,” a czarist-era geographic construction that encompasses present-day southern and eastern Ukraine, has given energy to a sizable nationalist wing at home. In recent months, the Russian state has used a nonstop television campaign to whip the country into a paranoid, hateful frenzy. Those are difficult emotions to switch off. In a speech to parliament in March, Putin presented himself as a defender of ethnic Russians wherever they are found.
So how can he abandon them now in the face of Western pressure? The constituencies inside Russia that are pushing for a more antagonistic approach in Ukraine represent Putin’s most dependable base—exactly the supporters he can ill afford to anger in rough times.
MH17 has presented Putin with a way out of the current crisis in Ukraine and its mounting costs for Russia, but both his habits and fears may lead him to gamble again. The danger of a bigger and bigger wager, though, is that the size of the potential loss mounts, too.