Putin's Ukraine Mistakes Have Made Him a Pariah

Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty

Call it Putin's Lockerbie moment—the week the world's attitudes toward Russia's leader tipped from wary distrust into frank hostility.

It has been a precipitous descent. Just a few months ago Putin's international standing was at an all-time high as he presided over the Sochi Olympics and released imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot. But his reputation began its downward slalom with Russia's occupation of Crimea. And now it has gone off a cliff as Putin's name has become inextricably linked to the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

"Politics is about control of the imaginary—and [MH17] has become symbolic of something deeper," says Mark Galeotti, clinical professor of global affairs at New York University. "It is becoming very difficult not to regard Putin's Russia as essentially an aggressive, subversive and destabilizing nation."

It didn't have to be like this; the Kremlin didn't have to own this disaster. Unlike Muammar el-Qaddafi, whose agents knowingly blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 243, Putin apparently didn't order separatist militiamen near Donetsk to murder civilians. The evidence points to a tragic mistake by ill-trained, ill-disciplined militias to whom Russia rashly supplied deadly surface-to-air missiles.

Putin could have condemned the Donetsk rebel group responsible, agreed to cooperate with international investigators and called world leaders to share their shock and commitment to bring the guilty to justice.

Instead, he did the opposite. In the days after the tragedy, the Kremlin obfuscated the facts, blamed Kiev and facilitated the Donetsk separatists' hasty cover-up operations—from attempting to hide bodies that had telltale shrapnel wounds to hurriedly evacuating the BUK rocket launcher involved in the attack back across the Russian border (a not-so-secret operation snapped by the camera-phones of local residents and Kiev's spies).

Putin himself appeared on national television—twice—vaguely blaming the whole incident on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for not making peace with the rebels, a convoluted version of a child's "he made me do it" argument. As a result of Putin's KGB-trained instinct to deny everything, the tragedy of MH17 is, in the eyes of much of the world, now seen as Putin's doing.

"For the Western public, Putin has come to occupy the same place as Muammar el-Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein," says Russian commentator Oleg Kashin. "He's become a kind of Doctor Evil who shoots down planes."

And it's not just the public. Western leaders—especially U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's newly appointed cabinet—have been lining up to blast Putin in terms hitherto reserved for the likes of Bashar Assad and Qaddafi. U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon accused Putin of "sponsoring terrorism" and told him bluntly to "get out of Ukraine." His colleague Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned that "Russia risks becoming a pariah state if it does not behave properly." And Cameron himself wrote that it was time the West must "fundamentally change our approach" to Russia. Even Germany's Angela Merkel, whose country is both Russia's biggest business partner and most dependent on Gazprom's oil, called Putin to urge him to use his influence to rein in pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

Before MH17, Putin's reputation was, in much of the West, still a matter of debate. For liberals who thought Russia could do much better, he was an autocrat who killed free speech and the godfather of a pyramid of thieving bureaucrats who had bled Russia dry, strangled small businesses and robbed the country of a bright economic future.

Dozens of bodies of about 200 victims lie at the crash site where Flight 17, a Boeing 777 carrying 298 passengers and crew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, crashed and burned, near the village of Grabovo, some 80 km east of Donetsk. Mauricio Lima/The New York Times/Redux

But for plenty of others—our colleagues over at Time magazine, for instance, who named Putin their "Person of the Year" in 2007—he was a strong leader who rebuilt Russia from its post-Soviet collapse. Social conservatives like former U.S. presidential hopeful Patrick Buchanan admired his stand against gays and Western liberalism, as did European ultraconservative leaders like France's Marine Le Pen and Britain's Nigel Farage—who in May named Putin as his most admired international leader whose handling of the Syrian crisis was, in Farage's view, "brilliant."

Now, that legion of what the Germans call Putin-versteher—literally "Putin-understanders"—are notable by their silence. "Putin apologists are finding it harder to hold their head up or to be held as credible people," says Galeotti.

And there's plenty of opprobrium to go around. Hollywood and the fashion world already turned against the Kremlin in the aftermath of his new laws earlier this year criminalizing gay "propaganda." But now even Putin's personal friends in show business are feeling the heat: The 1980s action star Steven Seagal has been disinvited from an event in Estonia for his pro-Putin stance.

Putin affects a tough, independent demeanor. But everything he has done in his 14 years in power has been about building up Russia and Russia's image in the eyes of the world. From the lavish G8 summit in St. Petersburg in 2006 (unlikely to be repeated as Russia was kicked out of the club of leading democratic nations earlier this year), to the $50 billion Sochi Olympics, to the 2018 World Cup, Putin has lavished billions on raising Russia's profile.

He has funded institutes in Paris and Washington to boost Russia's influence on policy-making circles, and he has sponsored no-expense-spared annual conferences for foreign experts on Russia from around the world to convince academics and commentators of the wisdom of the Kremlin's line. MH17—or, rather, the Kremlin's handing of its aftermath—has ruined years of careful soft-power building at a stroke. For someone as status-obsessed as Putin, that must hurt.

Unfortunately for Russia, public relations disasters on this scale have real-world consequences. Just hours before MH17 was blown out of the sky, the U.S. announced a new round of economic sanctions, this time targeting Russian oil companies' ability to raise financing on international markets. After MH17, pressure has grown exponentially to tighten sanctions even more—a move that could bring Russia's economy to its knees in short order.

"The threat of sanctions against entire sectors of the economy is now very real, and there are serious grounds for business to be afraid," Putin's first prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, told Bloomberg on July 21. "If there will be sanctions against the entire financial sector, the economy will collapse in six months."

The European Union will likely announce a further tightening of sanctions on the assets of Putin cronies and their companies—less severe than Washington has been pushing for, but which will nonetheless increase the pressure on Russia's faltering economy.

Realistically, though, there's no way that Europe can economically disengage from Russia—especially as the continent relies on the Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom for 25 percent of its energy needs. If only for pragmatic reasons, Europe will have to continue to deal with Putin. But long-term, it's clear that the MH17 disaster will accelerate the search of non-Russian energy sources and harden opposition to Gazprom superprojects like the South Stream pipeline from Russia to Central Europe.

But the most important short-term consequence will be to crystallize another Iron Curtain between Europe and Russia that has been forming ever since Russia's brief invasion of Georgia in 2008. "There will be a much clearer sense of a borderline and the need to defend that border—from the Baltics to Ukraine," says Galeotti. In practical terms, that means Europe will have to help Ukraine defeat pro-Russian rebels. "The explosion of [MH17] propelled Kiev into the bosom of Europe. The best way to show Putin that aggression doesn't pay will be to support Poroshenko," he says.

On the ground, it's also likely that the pro-Russian rebels' MH17 screw-up will hasten their defeat. Kiev will be emboldened to pile in and finish them off—and, with the world's eyes on the conflict zone, it will be much harder for Russia to continue to supply the kind of heavy weaponry such as planes and rocket systems that the rebels need to make a real tactical difference.

That in turn puts Russia in a trap of its own making. If Putin allows the Ukrainian separatists to be defeated he stands to lose massive face domestically. "The popular view [of the Donetsk separatists] is that Putin has let a genie out of its bottle which will eventually eat him," writes Kashin. When they are eventually defeated by Ukrainian forces, he says, "Russian volunteers will come back from Donbass and knock on the doors of the Kremlin itself." Yet if Putin continues to support the rebels he faces worse international sanctions.

For most of his reign, Putin has been lucky. He was plucked out of obscurity by the Yeltsin family and appointed the old president's successor without having to fight for it. Early in his tenure oil—Russia's biggest export—jumped from $19 a barrel to $100 and stayed there. Chechen rebels turned on each other and brought their longstanding insurgency to a bloody end. Political opponents realized it was far better to join the oil-rich Kremlin gravy train rather than fight it.

But now his luck has run out, and he's floundering. "Bad things happen"—as former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma feebly responded when his forces accidentally shot down a Russian civilian airliner in 2001. They do. But Putin in Ukraine has allowed himself become a hostage to bad stuff happening—and that is just bad politics.

Cover-ups rarely work—and often blow up in your face. As the U.S. found in the aftermath of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, for instance, or the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988, just five months before Lockerbie, the smartest way to deal with such as disaster is to accept, apologize and conspicuously punish the guilty.

This year Putin gained Crimea—but also irrevocably lost Ukraine, which is far more strategically important. And after his mishandling of MH17 he's blundered into losing the last shreds of international respect, too. That was an unnecessary mistake which will cost him—and Russia—dearly.