With an America sick of all those entangling alliances once known as the Free World, and turning its back on old friends and the world in general, the stage was set for Moscow to start grabbing pieces of other countries again. First came a nibble of Georgia, then the whole Crimean peninsula, and now the swath of eastern Ukraine just across what used to be an international border.
Emerging from hibernation, the Russian bear's appetite was only whetted with every course. It could have been the 1940s again, or the '50s or '60s or ... any time there was still a Soviet Union instead of today's convincing facsimile thereof under another name.
To quote a line sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme. And once again Kipling's bear that walks like a man is on the loose. The usual thuggery has now been placed in charge of the usual "people's republics" with the usual support of the thug-in-chief in the Kremlin, and equipped with the usual arsenal, including surface-to-air missiles.
Oops. Did I just refer to Vladimir Putin as a thug? That's bad form these days, like Winston Churchill referring to Hitler, Goebbels and the rest of that bunch as guttersnipes. That's a most undiplomatic thing to say, and the more accurate, the more unacceptable in polite circles -- the kind of elite circles Neville Chamberlain once frequented, and whose dinner parties might be upset by such coarse language.
How tactless of me. Those aren't thugs, not at all, but "political operatives," which was the standard euphemism for Soviet agents during those years V. Putin was going up the career ladder with the KGB, now known as the FSB in the not so new Russia. All that was before the fall of the Evil Empire disrupted Comrade Putin's rise but not for long. Just long enough to change his cover but not his tactics.
Russia may have changed its name and even its official ideology -- from Marxism- Leninism to the more traditional Great Russian nationalism -- but not its ways. How describe its all too familiar modus operandi? The best way might be to use Ronald Reagan's analogy. For he had a disturbing habit of calling a threat to world peace a threat to world peace. The Gipper once compared the old Soviet Union's technique to that of the hotel burglar who methodically goes down the corridor checking every door till he comes across one that's been left unlocked. Then he enters and takes whatever's worth taking. It helps if the house detective is taking a nap at the time.
Mr. Reagan had a way with words, not to mention a way of facing harsh realities -- and recognizing evil -- that offended more genteel souls, who much preferred living in their own dream world. Like our current Pollyanna of a president, who never seems to have met a bully he couldn't make excuses for. Or a victim he could resist blaming, or at least accusing of an over-reaction to merely being attacked.
How little the new Russia differs from the old. The more it changes, the more its brutalities remain the same. And so do its cover stories. No, there's no utterly convincing, 100 percent conclusive proof that Moscow was behind the downing of a Malaysian airliner the other day that cost the lives of all 298 innocents aboard. Any more than a detective who finds the suspect crouching over a bullet-riddled corpse with a smoking gun in his hand can be 100 percent sure who dunnit. After all, he didn't actually see the crime committed, but only gathered a plenitude of evidence afterward, all of which points to our old familiar suspect. If said suspect isn't guilty, he certainly acts like it, right down to the unconvincing alibis.
It would take a capacious folder indeed to hold the still mounting pile of evidence in this case. If it's all circumstantial, the cumulative weight of it is enough to make it more than circumstantial. By now it would be almost a statistical impossibility for anyone but V. Putin and rough company to have shot down that passenger plane with a surface-to-air missile.
Take a look at the growing stack of documentary evidence. For example:
--The video of a SAM rocket launcher with one rocket not so mysteriously missing being driven away from the likely scene of the crime in Russian-controlled territory.
-- The growing flow of weaponry from Russia to its puppets in eastern Ukraine.
--The detection of a SAM missile being launched at about the same time as the passenger plane was hit.
--The camps in southwestern Russia where those separatist fighters are trained in the use of anti-aircraft weapons and other arms.
--The number of Ukrainian military planes that have been shot down over the past month.
--The intercepted phone calls from Russian agents -- excuse me, political operatives -- taking credit for the missile strike. As well as the phone calls concocting a cover story to explain away all these more than suspicious circumstances.
More evidence is doubtless to come as the remains of the victims are finally turned over to Dutch authorities -- after being left to rot in the summer sun for days before anyone trustworthy could get to them.
No, there's still no smoking gun in this case, but there's certainly been a smoking missile.
Just as in Cold War days, Moscow's version of this mass murder is a mirror image of the one presented by all the currently available evidence. Its story, and it's sticking to it, is that the passenger plane was really shot down by the Ukrainian military. You know, the way Poland invaded Nazi Germany in 1939.
It's called disinformation, to use the not-so-dated Soviet terminology. And you can be sure it will be parroted by the usual Blame America First crowd with a slightly new twist (Blame Ukraine First), but an old Soviet term still applies to such stooges: Useful Idiots.
A dizzying sense of Deja Vu comes back along with the stench of those 298 bodybags. Remember the downing of that Korean airliner in 1983? For days, even weeks, the Kremlin stuck to its cover story. Then, too, all the clues pointed to the usual culprit, whatever geriatric case was in charge of the Kremlin at the time. For the old Soviet empire was starting to crumble and its propaganda was already no longer as believable. And yet Moscow denied its guilt for the longest time -- until the Soviet archives were opened and it could no longer be denied. Murder, like truth, will out.
Maybe the world will have to wait till the fall of the current Russian autocracy to confirm its complicity in this crime and tragedy, too. But when those archives are opened one distant day, they should make enlightening reading. There's nothing like old records to shed new light, especially when they read like a criminal dossier. But the historian of the future may have trouble reading these particular papers. They'll be covered with blood.