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Putin on the march (as world fumbles)

Illustrator John Shakespeare's take on international reactions to the Malaysia Airlines jet downed in eastern Ukraine.

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World outrage at the attack on MH17 has done nothing to check Vladimir Putin’s drive to control Ukraine by force of arms. Quite the contrary. He’s accelerating Russia’s undeclared takeover of the biggest country in Europe.

Putin is using an iron fist in an iron glove. He is daring the US and the EU to stop him. Sanctions? Capital flight? Recession? He’s demonstrating that these are a price he’s prepared to pay.

Even as he promised Tony Abbott on the weekend to implement a ceasefire at the crash site, he was planning major shipments of heavy weapons to the Russian separatists, according to the Pentagon.

<i>Illustration: John Shakespeare.</i>

Illustration: John Shakespeare.

Deceit is standard operating procedure for Putin. He’s lied to win time and to gain advantage in all three of his standout acts of international defiance: Russia’s 2008 attack on the former Soviet republic of Georgia; its annexation of Crimea in February; and the deliberate blocking of international intervention in Syria.

“By the time the international community and the far-too-polite media reach the conclusion that you lied, you and your allies will be so far ahead of the game that it will not matter,” writes James Miller, a Russia expert and managing editor of The Interpreter magazine.

On Saturday, Abbott and Putin agreed by phone on the need to implement a ceasefire to ensure “the unhampered work of international experts in the catastrophe area,” according to a statement from the Kremlin.

Yet on the same day (Friday US time), the Pentagon told reporters that it had evidence that Russian artillery was firing from Russian soil at targets in Ukraine.

The US defence department also said that it had intelligence that Russia was planning a major delivery of heavy weapons to the Russian separatists in Ukraine. Of course, Putin insists that Russia is not conducting any hostile activities against Ukraine whatsoever.

In truth, Putin is determined not to allow the MH17 incident to interfere with his plan for domination.

The government of Ukraine has been loose with its definition of ceasefire too. Its foreign minister said in Washington on the weekend that his country was maintaining “a kind of unilateral ceasefire” in the area of the crash site.

Yet since the airliner was shot down, the Ukrainian forces have fought a major counteroffensive to push the Russian rebels back, with some success. 

Fighting reportedly intensified around the area on the weekend, delaying and complicating the Dutch-Australian-Malaysian recovery operation. The upshot is that neither the Russians and their proxies on the one hand, nor the Ukrainians on the other, are observing a ceasefire. Like flight MH17 itself, the effort to recover it is an unfortunate casualty of the larger struggle.

An Abbott mantra is that Australia is not interested in getting involved in the politics of eastern Europe. Interested or not, it’s stuck in the middle of them.

Why is Putin apparently untroubled by the sanctions already in place against his regime and the threat of much larger ones to come?

He’s betting that the US and EU will either remain in a state of wilful denial about the seriousness of his project, or that they will continue to dither.

Even if they eventually impose tough punitive economic sanctions, even if NATO eventually arms Ukraine with lethal weapons, Putin is punting that his forces will have redrawn the map and entrenched Russian influence.

The war is a fought for high stakes. For Ukraine, it’s national survival against a big and powerful aggressor.

For Putin? He’s pursuing three main objectives. First, he wants conquest. In rebuilding Russian power and crafting his nascent “Eurasian Union” to compete with the European Union, it’s imperative that Ukraine is returned to Russia’s sphere of influence, and the EU denied it.

As part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the biggest food producer and biggest industrial power other than Russia itself. It’s a major prize.

Second, Putin is writing his place in the history books. Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin, relates a conversation in Putin’s Novo-Ogaryovo Palace.

The president asks his courtiers, who are the greatest Russian traitors? “But he did not wait for them to answer: the greatest criminals in our history were those weaklings who threw the power on the floor – Nicholas II and Mikhail Gorbachev,” writes Judah in last week’s Newsweek. “Those courtiers then present claim that the President vowed never to do the same.”

Third, Putin is working to maintain his own political mastery at home. His aggression abroad has harmed the business interests of the oligarchs  who depend on global connections for trade and finance. American and European sanctions are targeting the businesses of the oligarchs closest to the president. He can no longer count on their support.

This damage is done. But he is riding high with the nationalists and the security establishment and with the Russian public. An independent, Gallup-affiliated poll found that eight Russians in 10 say they approve of the job Putin is doing. A poll by State-run media put it closer to nine out of ten.

In other words, he has passed the point of no return. To abandon his project for Russian greatness now, to yield to Western pressure, would be personally and politically intolerable. If Putin ever seems to offer a concession, it’s either a tactic or a ruse. The iron fist in the iron glove is not an optional accessory but an indispensable part of Putin’s policy.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.