— Скептикобандеровец (@nahtrezer) July 18, 2014
It’s been a study in contrasts for quite some time. One global leader whips up nationalist sentiment to get sky-high ratings at home; the other glides through another summer of Tea Party dyspepsia with imperturbable equanimity. One leader acts on the world stage by annexing a neighboring country and then threatening it some more; the other slowly and painstakingly ratchets up sanctions, whether it be on Iran or Russia, and keeps his options open. And it all came to a fitting climax yesterday. In the morning, no-drama Obama announces new, tougher sanctions because of intelligence showing deeper Russian assistance for the slowly fading separatists in east Ukraine; and only hours later, Putin’s hot-headed goons, using weapons they clearly are not fully in control of, shoot down a civilian airliner. So who, Mr Krauthammer, looks weak now?
Putin has lost Ukraine, its trade pact with the EU is now signed, and its Russophile separatists exposed as fanatical, fantasizing idiots, while Ukraine elected a new president to chart its future. The Russian economy, already hobbled, could face increasingly strong headwinds, if Merkel decides to press the West’s advantage or finally leverages a real climb-down from Moscow over Ukraine. Obama, on the other hand, has a wide noose around the Russian economy and just increased the odds of deeper EU tightening.
And if the missile that shot down the plane can be traced to Russia itself, then the consequences dramatically widen. And that seems possible this morning. Austin Long points out that a Buk missile launcher would not have been easy for Ukrainian rebels to capture from the Ukrainian government and that the operation of such weaponry is complicated. This leads him to suspect that “the Buk was provided by Russia along with any necessary training”:
This is supported by U.S. and Ukrainian reports last month that Russia had provided tanks and other heavy equipment to the separatists. Notably both the tanks alleged to have been provided (T-64s) and the Buk are older Soviet-era equipment that Russia would not miss but would also be plausibly present in Ukrainian arsenals. This allows the Russians to retain a figleaf of plausible deniability about the equipment.
If Russia is directly involved in this way, it seems to me that Putin has now over-reached in such a way that all but destroys what’s left of his foreign policy.
And Josh Marshall’s right that the spectacle of Russian cluelessness, amateurism and recklessness could be the worst news of all for Putin. If there’s one thing a neofascist Tsar cannot afford it’s the appearance of incompetence and chaos.
Leonid Bershidsky, meanwhile, declares that “the separatists’ campaign is doomed.” He argues that there “is no chance of the rebels marching on Kiev or even making secession work: They are too weak for that, and after MH17, they have lost their last shreds of moral authority”:
If Putin keeps backing the insurgents until their inevitable defeat, his international isolation will deepen, as did that of the Soviet Union’s leaders after their jets shot down a Korean passenger jet in 1983, and former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi after the 1988 bombing of a PanAm airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. Malaysia, a Muslim nation that has long fought American influence, can hardly be expected to listen to Russian fairy-tales about the crash. The developing world will now join the West in condemning the rebels — and Putin as their only ally.