Will MH17 air crash damage Russia's Putin?

Russia President Vladimir Putin in Shanghai Russia has been accused of providing military help to the rebels to shoot down the Malaysia Airlines plane

Right up until the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on 17 July, President Vladimir Putin's handling of the Ukraine crisis was seen in Russia as fairly successful, both strategically and tactically.

Russia was obviously supporting the militants in the Donbass region, while still pursuing a policy of plausible deniability. At the same time, it had joined Germany and France in a diplomatic effort to promote a political settlement within Ukraine that would also take Russia's interests into account.

The European Union was balking at further sanctions against the Russian government, with a number of countries resolved to protect their important economic relations. The Obama Administration's attempts to rally the Europeans around the sanctions agenda appeared largely ineffectual.

Russia President Vladimir Putin and China President Xi Jinping at a signing ceremony for landmark gas deal Russia and China signed a landmark gas deal in May 2014, boosting relations between the two countries

Mr Putin was, by contrast, expanding Russia's relations with China, gaining a measure of moral support from the other Brics countries (Brazil, India, China and South Africa), and rekindling old and striking new friendships in Latin America.

The MH17 tragedy abruptly changed all that.

The United States and several of its closest allies have immediately accused Russia of aiding and abetting, if not actually perpetrating, a heinous crime.

Mainstream Western media are already calling for Russia to be treated as a pariah state. As a majority of the victims were from the Netherlands, relations with Europe are particularly likely to suffer.

UK PM David Cameron sees the crash as a "defining moment" for Russia

The gap between the US and EU approaches to sanctions on Russia is about to become narrower, destroying Moscow's hopes of a serious divergence within the West.

In Asia, where Russia is now "pivoting" to, the shooting down of the Malaysian passenger plane may also give rise to anti-Russian sentiment. Mr Putin recently signed a 30-year gas deal with China.

Elsewhere in the non-Western world, which still relies to a significant degree on the Western media for covering world developments, the reputations of both Russia and President Putin will take a big hit.

Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash site in Eastern Ukraine President Putin publicly backs an international inquiry into the MH17 disaster

Some in Russia may see the dramatic worsening of relations with the West over Ukraine as being driven by an undeclared US policy of containing Russia, but few welcome it.

While most Russians sympathise with the plight of the people of eastern Ukraine, around two-thirds are against a military invasion of Ukraine.

With Mr Putin's popularity still topping 80%, he has been widely credited so far with pursuing the right course: protecting Russia's interests, while avoiding unacceptable risks.

  • "Returning Crimea to Russia", especially without major clashes, was seen as the nearest thing to a miracle
  • Vowing to defend ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in southern and eastern Ukraine against the new authorities in Kiev won the president more acclaim
Pro-Russia separatist stands at the crash site of downed Malaysia Airlines plane. MH17 Moscow has been accused of smuggling heavy weaponry to separatist rebels, a claim Russia denies

The MH17 air disaster, however, raises questions.

Russians, by and large, have long assumed that Moscow is giving the self-declared people's republics of Donetsk and Luhansk more than moral and political support.

At the same time, they hear from their own leaders that Russia does not control those whom it publicly backs. For a while, they may have accepted this apparent incoherence as a diplomatic ruse.

If the international investigation, however, establishes that Russia has indeed given the Donbass militants powerful weapons which they used to shoot down - by mistake - a passenger plane, part of the Russian public, not necessarily pro-Western or liberal, will see the Kremlin's approach as irresponsible brinkmanship.

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Sensing this danger, Vladimir Putin is pushing back hard against the US-backed version of the crash.

  • Russian general staff officials are presenting their own evidence and are asking questions about the Ukrainian role in the crash
  • The Russian president himself is talking to Western and Malaysian leaders and publicly supports an international inquiry
  • At the United Nations, the Russian ambassador has supported a relevant resolution
  • With the plane's black boxes found by the rebels and handed over to the international investigators, the inquiry is now starting in earnest

The stakes are very high.

If the investigators' verdict does eventually fall against Russia it is not so much Vladimir Putin's integrity that will suffer, as respect for his strategic skill. He has, after all, never said that the rebels had nothing to do with the disaster; instead he blamed Ukraine for attacking them.

Mr Putin will survive politically, but will have to work hard to restore faith in him, and his good fortune.

Russia may, however, avoid the blame. And if it does, then the onus for the crime, and the responsibility, will be on others. And Vladimir Putin will have dodged that bullet, too.

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