The horrific destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is one of those rare events that shocks the conscience of the entire world. While an objective investigation has been rightly called for to uncover the full truth behind this horrific crime, is it unlikely that such truth will be easily discoverable. The President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, simultaneously condemned as a rush to judgment finger-pointing at his government, called for a full investigation and simultaneously stated for the record that-without a doubt-the Ukrainian government was responsible. Meanwhile, Putin's Russian militias in Eastern Ukraine, suspected by most of the world of being behind the anti-aircraft missile firing that doomed MH17, have seized control of the debris field, where dead bodies, many of them fragmented, lay amid a million shattered metallic pieces of the destroyed Boeing 777. The allegations and observations made by journalists on the scene that these militias have shown disrespect for the human remains of the victims, engaged in theft, evidence tampering and appeared often to be drunk has presented the world with an unedited as well as unflattering portrait of Vladimir Putin's Ukrainian policy as executed on the ground by the Kremlin.
In a previous blog pierce, written after Putin seized control of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, I warned of the dangerous path the Russian president appeared to be pursuing, and suggested a better alternative for serving Russia's legitimate security and cultural interests in Ukraine, namely replicating a modern version of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's policy towards Finland after World War II, what became known as Finlandization. Instead, Putin appears to have chosen a different model, one that was created by the CIA in the 1980s when it launched a covert war against Nicaragua with armed militias known as the Contras. In effect, Putin's Russian militias operating in Eastern Ukraine bear stark resemblance to the Contras in form and substance.
The deliberate stifling of initial attempts to effect a proper investigation of the MH17 crash scene has aroused deep horror and indignation around the world, but especially in the Netherlands-of the 298 passengers and crew murdered in this atrocity, 193 were citizens of that small country. All this suggests that Mr. Putin has drawn the wrong lessons from Stalin. Instead of Finlandization, he appears to be implementing an updated version of the Katyn Forest episode, one of the darkest chapters in Russian history.
Katyn Forest outside Smolensk, Russia was the site where thousands of Polish prisoners of war, officers and NCOs, were murdered in cold blood by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, in 1940. In 1939 these men were captured by the Russians when Stalin signed his infamous pact with Hitler, which included a secret protocol for dividing Poland between the two dictatorships. Stalin had the Polish officers shot to eliminate a potential obstacle towards imposing communism on the part of Poland occupied by the Soviet Union. In 1943, two years after Germany stabbed Stalin in the back and invaded Russia, Katyn Forest, which was then occupied by the German army, became the site of a major excavation. The Nazis had learned about the executions, leading them to uncover the mass graves. The Germans of course were committing the equivalent of many Katyn massacres themselves at that time; they cynically exploited the discovery of Stalin's crime to drive a wedge between the Allied nations confronting Hitler though a massive propaganda campaign. However, in the fall of 1943, the Russian army reoccupied Katyn Forest, and from that time on, the Soviets engaged in a large-scale cover-up program, involving the creation of fraudulent documents, phony forensic examinations and sham witnesses. The cover-up was very elaborate, though practically no one in Poland believed the official Soviet line about the massacre. In 1990, in the dying moments of the Soviet Union, President Mikhail Gorbachev officially admitted that the Katyn massacre was the responsibility of the Soviet secret police, and was carried out on Stalin's orders. Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, released archives pertaining to the Katyn massacre, including a document bearing Stalin's signature authorizing the mass executions.
Unlike the Katyn Forest massacre, the slaughter of the innocent victims of MH17 was unlikely due to deliberate intent. If it was Russian militias that shot down the plane with missiles supplied on Putin's orders, perhaps with direct assistance from Russian army personnel, it is most likely the culprits thought they were targeting a Ukrainian military transport plane rather than a civil aviation aircraft. From this point on, however, the similarities with Katyn became haunting and profane. Putin's media outlets are already claiming that a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down MH17, believing it was a Russian aircraft carrying President Putin himself. It appears that the early stages of the cover-up are being engineered in Moscow.
As with Stalin's cover-up of the mass murder at Katyn Forest, there are people who will believe Putin's propaganda, no matter how ridiculously contrived. For example, the retired Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro, rushed off a pompous declaration in the form of a commentary, which appeared in the official Cuban Communist Party newspaper, Granma (http://www.granma.cu/idiomas/ingles/cuba-i/18julio-fidel.html). Seething with indignation, Castro denounced the "unheard of news that a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane had been hit at an altitude of 10,100 meters as it flew over Ukrainian territory, along a route controlled by the war-hungry government of chocolate king, Petro Poroshenko." The retired dictator wrote further that he "cannot refrain from expressing our repudiation of the action of the anti-Russian, anti-Ukrainian and pro-imperialist government." So in the eyes of Castro, the Ukrainian President shot down MH17. On the other hand, Venezuela's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an official statement declaring that the United States is responsible for the downing of MH17 (http://www.eluniversal.com/internacional/140718/venezuela-acusa-a-estados-unidos-y-la-otan-de-tragedia-de-malaysia-ari).
Those exceptions are overwhelmed by the near-universal revulsion at the emerging cobbling-up of a cover-up of Russia's complicity in the Malaysian Airlines massacre. I don't know if Putin is pursuing a Katyn Forest-style cover-up of his government's complicity in the MH17 shoot down out of ignorance of the growing disgust being aroused throughout the world, or if he really believes this obstruction of the truth will somehow serve Russia's geopolitical interests. If the Russian president were to truly analyze the situation objectively, he would come to realize that allowing the full truth to come out, even if it were to show that a bad policy decision was made in supplying advanced anti-aircraft missiles to the militias in Eastern Ukraine, would be far less injurious to Russian national interests and his nation's standing in the world, than unleashing its state-sponsored propaganda machine to concoct a sinister remake of the Katyn massacre cover-up.