As the world reacts in horror and disgust at the shooting down of Malaysian Airways Flight 17 over Russian controlled eastern Ukraine, let us not forget the Crimean outrage. Russian President Vladimir Putin's cynicism, stealth tactics and dissembling were first on full display there. He proved his willingness to tell blatant lies , trample on the sovereignty of Ukraine and ignore world opinion. What makes us think the behavior of this insecure little man will be changed by the deaths of 298 innocent passengers?
In Crimea Putin brought the craft of "plausible deniability" to a new level. He sold the farce of armed men in unmarked uniforms as locals behind a spontaneous uprising to those gullible enough to believe it. Or perhaps to those whose fear of a cold winter made them want to believe it. They occupied and destroyed government facilities, sank Ukrainian ships and beat up opposition leaders. A mock plebiscite overseen by Russian guns and goons produced the predictable result.
And then he drove Crimea off the front pages, where it has remained, by fomenting, arming and training pro-Russian thugs in Eastern Ukraine. As in Crimea, many of the "separatists" are Russian citizens, some Putin associates from his KGB days. Having unleashed and continued feeding of the dogs of war, Putin simultaneously claims that they are independent actors and that he is only defending the rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine. Many, especially in energy dependent Europe bought these claims or conveniently overlooked their absurdity. Sanctions have been as mild as Europeans have felt they could get away with despite American pressure.
The shoot down of MH17 will test both the plausibility gullibility and the moral fiber of the Europeans. It is as certain as any fact can be that the commercial flight was shot down by a Russian-made SA-11 medium surface to air missile (SAM) system from an area controlled by the separatists. Whether it was fired by a Russian crew or a Russian-trained separatist crew is irrelevant. The delay in granting international access, the ghoulish treatment of the bodies and the failure to secure the crash site are heinous crimes in themselves. And Mr. Putin and his stooges are entirely responsible. It was a perhaps unpredictable event, except that fomenting hatred and violence as Putin has done in his war on Ukraine was bound to produce some horrendous unpredictable event along with the predictable carnage occurring daily.
So, "What is to be done?" as a previous Vladimir asked. First, serious and painful sanctions must be enforced including severe financial sanctions such as revoking VISA and Master Card processing of Russian transactions. Second, Mr. Putin should be allowed only a brief visit to address the UN General Assembly in September, if any visit at all. And there should be few if any restrictions on demonstrations. Third, FIFA should move the 2018 World Cup from Russia to the Netherlands. And we must demand that Putin end all support for Ukrainian separatists, cease other efforts to destabilize the Ukrainian government and agree to a internationally supervised honest referendum on the fate of Crimea, assuming the Ukrainian government agrees. And sanctions should not be eased until these actions are well underway and irreversible.
When Putin was a KGB Lieutenant Colonel he reportedly was denied promotion because he was too reckless and more of a tactician than a strategist. Crimea was a closed-loop problem, where tactics sufficed. But Eastern Ukraine is an open ended problem and Putin has had no strategy, no clear end game. Chaos and instability were an end in themselves. Putin is now a victim of his own short sightedness and there is no tactical exit unless the civilized world loses its moral compass and is willing to accept 298 lives as the price of not offending this petty tyrant.