Vladimir Putin is hoping to get away with murder. Last week a civilian airliner was shot down over eastern Ukraine by a sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system, and 298 innocent people died as a result. Simple logic and all the early evidence to point to Russia as the guilty party, but Putin smugly believes that he will get off scot-free. And he has good reasons to think so.
He enjoys strong support from a gullible and fiercely nationalistic Russian public that uncritically believes the Kremlin’s propaganda. The militants who almost certainly brought down Malaysian Airways Flight MH 17 with Russian support are apparently now frantically trying to remove evidence of their culpability from the crash site. And Putin is counting on feckless and vacillating European leaders to bend over backwards to avoid a confrontation with Russia that would endanger their multi-billion dollar business contracts with the Kremlin, Inc.
For months, Russian backed separatists have been waging war against Ukraine’s legitimate government, and employing increasingly advanced weaponry which Russia is covertly and illegally supplying them. A few days before the Malaysian flight was targeted for destruction, Putin’s proxies knocked a Ukrainian transport jet out of the sky with a high altitude missile of the same type, the Soviet designed “Buk.”
According to the claims of the Russian backed militants and numerous other sources, they had at their disposal at least one Buk battery. And the most plausible origin of such missiles is Putin’s military machine. It is a highly complex weapons system that would have required considerable technical assistance and advice to operate, which could only have come from Russia.
But in the black-is-white counterfactual universe of Russian state media, Malaysian Airways MH 17 couldn’t have been shot down by the Russian-backed militants. One theory propagated by the Kremlin’s spin doctors is that the Ukrainians themselves launched the fatal missile, despite the obvious fact that the militants don’t operate any aircraft which the Ukrainians would target.
This logical obstacle is swept aside with wild conspiracy theories, which the Russian public has been conditioned to believe by years of non-stop paranoia spread by Kremlin broadcasters. Russian media feverishly speculate that the Ukrainian government deliberately shot down the flight to discredit the militants and their patrons in Moscow.
Meanwhile, the Europe’s political leaders are caught in a quandary. The European public is properly outraged that more than two hundred EU citizens, mostly Dutch, were murdered in cold blood. However, with a few notable exceptions, the political and business elites are reluctant to do anything that might endanger their commercial relations with the Kremlin. And further looming over the EU is its dangerous reliance upon Russian energy supplies.
Vladimir Putin will never accept responsibility for the grievous consequences of his reckless policies. And he is undoubtedly hoping that his minions on the ground in Ukraine have removed enough evidence of Russian complicity to maintain a fiction of plausible deniability, no matter how flimsy. If the case against the Kremlin’s involvement is even slightly muddled by destroyed evidence, that will be sufficient for both the Russian public and Europe to let Putin off the hook for his criminal deeds.
Only the United States can stop Putin from getting off scot-free from his monstrous crimes. He and his cronies believe that none of the sanctions Obama has imposed to date truly affect their vital interest. But Obama can and should employ more biting financial and trade measures to make the Kremlin feel perceptible pain. And the U.S. should accelerate existing plans to export American natural gas to Europe and eventually undercut Putin’s strategy of energy blackmail.
But America has one very effective means of punishing Russia for its transgressions of basic norms of international decency and order. Putin is still determined to continue his policy of destabilizing Ukraine by continuing the covert war he initiated. The U.S. should begin to provide the legitimate government in Kiev with equipment and intelligence so that is can regain full control over its territory, protect its citizens from an illegal Russian backed insurgency, and defend its sovereignty.
A policy of more robust support for Kiev’s government would represent a determination to preserve peace and stability in a strategically important region, and it would demonstrate to Putin in the only language he understands that his efforts to undermine international order are ultimately doomed to failure. It won’t bring back the victims of Putin’s war, but it might bring an end to his warmongering. And in the longer-term, delivering a convincing rebuke to his schemes abroad could hasten his eventual and long overdue downfall.