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World wilts before Putin's iron fist

Date

Peter Hartcher

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

Illustration: John Shakespeare.

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.

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.

54 comments

  • Peter how come you never mention that USA spent $5 billion on destabilising Ukraine using pro fascist forces...how come you never mention the audio tape in which we can here American State department representative and American ambassador choosing new president of Ukraine...how come you never mention that American Vice President's son is running new gas and oil exploration company in Ukraine....how come you never mention that Ukraine neo-fascists burned 30 people alive in Kiev....and as for Syria I challenge you to find me UN resolution which said that Syrian forces used chemical weapons...

    Commenter
    Nikx
    Date and time
    July 29, 2014, 1:41AM
    • Because all of your points are exactly the kind of propaganda being churned out by the Kremlin mouthpiece media in Russia. The same ones alleging all kinds of conspiracy theories about MH17, like it was a Putin assassination attempt or a US plot so they could send troops to the Ukraine.

      This $5bn rumour keeps getting thrown around on the internet but I'm yet to see a single reputable source showing proof of where this money came from and to whom it was paid.
      Likewise the propaganda about to what extent the Euromaidan is run by fascists:

      http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/13/russian-propaganda-ukraine-fascist-protesters-euromaidan

      Biden's son, Hunter, is joining the board of Burisma. He is not "running" the company, nor does he have equity.

      As to chemical weapons in Syria, was the UN report not unequivocal enough??

      http://www.cfr.org/syria/un-report-chemical-weapons-use-syria/p31404

      Commenter
      Spaniel
      Date and time
      July 29, 2014, 6:50AM
    • There is a lot more at stake in the Ukraine for the rebels and the government than the removal of foreign body parts (if they are there - the plane disintegrated) from the crash site it appears. It is life and death there so we will just have to wait until the war moves on to other areas as you would in any war zone.
      Our quest is honourable but I would question the risk and the eventual cost.
      The US or NATO interests in Ukraine aren't being served by Putin but if the interests of the Russians in both Ukraine and Russia are being served then that appears to be his only concern. Where do the people of Ukraine fit into his plans?

      Commenter
      Darcy
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 29, 2014, 9:47AM
    • As a former military officer let me inform people of something that they surprisingly seem to miss.

      Tactically, downing the MH17 was important. you control the air you control the ground. Putin needs to do this and needs to ensure that large military aircraft like the ones owned by the USA and Britain cant role in if western countries commit to supporting the Ukraine.

      Secondly the Ukrainian army was moving on Donetsk just before the MH17 was shot down.
      This manoeuvre interfered with that and now the Ukraine's need to avoid hitting these outside observers and these observers are calling for a ceasefire on cue, which putin is obviously supporting as it gives him time to move forces into Donetsk from Russia.
      He also needed to test the resolve of the western alliance to confirm if flaky, so he didn't over commit and find himself in a major European war. He has achieved that and can take Ukraine with confidence now.

      Now who believes all this was coincidental?!
      It's brilliant work tactically and just required a despot to initiate it, Putin is that despot!!!.

      Commenter
      Mark
      Location
      oz
      Date and time
      July 29, 2014, 10:40AM
    • Spaniel........nulands phone call was broadcast all through the media for all to hear.....the US is up to their necks in dirty deal, as they are in other areas....why do you think they are mouthpiecing in the media about russia all the time?

      And it was Pete that wrote about the BRICS deal that russia, china, brazil etc are involved in setting up , so they can use their own currencies without using the standard US currency for foreign exchange deals.......all this is upsetting the US and the result is they are after russia it seems...

      Commenter
      dusky
      Date and time
      July 29, 2014, 10:42AM
    • Agree Mark

      As a current officer and like many military officers I came to the same conclusion as you.
      The movement on donestk by the Ukraine forces and then firing of the missile by the Russians was done to show what Putin was prepared to do to achieve his objectives. The Russians loose Donetsk, they have a much harder job to take outlying areas and then control that entire region. People will need to accept that the issue is bigger than recovering bodies because more live will be lost if the Russians get more military success.

      Commenter
      new world order
      Location
      Singapore
      Date and time
      July 29, 2014, 12:25PM
    • @Spaniel.....
      1.Your UN Report on use of Chemical Weapons in Syria DOESN'T state that Chemical Weapons were used by the Syrian Army. It states: ''The United Nations Mission concludes that chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic.'' So once more, where is your evidence that the Syrian Army used chemical weapons? What also surprised me is that you used American Neo-Con mouthpiece called 'Council on Foreign Relations' website as the 'proof'. That tells me which masters YOU serv. If you want to learn more about American Neo-Con plan to change regimes in the Arab regions, here is the video by USA's General Wesley Clark... www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUCwCgthp_E
      2.here is the video where Victoria Nuland's Admits Washington Has Spent $5 Billion on 'spreading democracy' in Ukraine... www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2fYcHLouXY
      3.also if you want know more about American plan to destabilise Ukraine (with the use of Ukraine neo-fascist groups) and how it's done (the blueprint), I'd definitely recommend you to familiarise yourself with history of CIA: Syria 1949 (and present), Iran in 1953, Guatemala 1954, Indonesia 1958, Cuba (Bay of Pigs) 1959, Iraq 1960-63, South Vietnam (which created 'Golf of Tonkin' incident that has been proven to be a lie) 1964, Brazil 1964, Ghana 1966, Chile 1970-73, Operation Cyclone in Afghanistan (and CIA creation of Al-Qaeda ) 1979-89, Turkey 1980, Nicaragua (Iran-Contra scandal) 1981-90, Cambodia 1980-95, Angola 1980s, Venezuela 2002, Haiti 2004, Libya 2011...and the most famous one, the Iraq war in 2003-present for inexistent WMDs, which led to 1,6mil Iraqis dead.
      I'm not pro Russian, I just refuse to be taken for a ride by the media puppets..unlike you.

      Commenter
      Nikx
      Date and time
      July 29, 2014, 3:42PM
    • spaniel

      They are very valid points that nikx makes

      For proof of America overthrowing a democratically elected govt listen to this conversation between
      Victoria Nuland: US-Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and Geoffrey R. Pyatt: United States Ambassador to Ukraine

      http://youtu.be/KIvRljAaNgg

      The US state department complained that this was a private conversation but never denied they helped overthrow the elected govt and decide who to put in its place.

      Commenter
      kicks with the right and left boot
      Date and time
      July 29, 2014, 5:51PM
  • You are bang on Peter.

    MH17 will certainly not stop VP from achieving his objectives with carving up Ukraine and he is not too worried about what the EU and US might do (nothing that will really hurt).

    Here is my solution to deal with the problem.

    The Pro-Ukranians should give up the Eastern areas and turn it into a special zone. Anyone who wants to live in the zone must give up their Pro-Uk citizenship. It is a way of telling Russia, "ok, you win but we still consider the area our territory and we are only doing this for the sake of peace and to get on with our lives".

    Continue the sanctions on Russia and put in place restrictions on the zone. Let the Russians look after the people there :) I predict the people will be begging to rejoin Ukraine proper in 20 years from now when they see how better off West Ukraine becomes. Maybe they will reunite again.

    Commenter
    Zac
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    July 29, 2014, 3:07AM
    • If Ukraine had paid their gas bill the problem could have gone away.
      If Ukraine had closed the air space, which they alone are responsible for, MH17 wouldn't have been in the danger zone and not have been shot down.
      The west are keen to export democracy but when the majority result of a referendum was for closer ties with Russia it was declared illegal and void, as it wasn't the result they wanted.

      This is another messy civil war. When Russia build the alternate gas pipeline to Europe bypassing Ukraine, you can demonize Russia and Putin all you like but I think freezing Ukrainians will soon realize they should have paid their gas bill. Try and find a capitalist in USA to disagree with that.

      Commenter
      nolongerconfused
      Date and time
      July 29, 2014, 9:14AM

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