Is Putin on the skids?
What do we know about Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17? It was the second Malaysian Airlines plane to perish in four months with a total of over 500 victims, and thousands more forever grieving. It was shot down – probably by a surface to air missile (SA-11). It was probably a Russian-made BUK which has the capability of shooting down aircraft at altitudes well in excess of 10,000 meters. The aircraft came down over a conflict zone in east Ukraine.
The Ukraine military forces had recently launched an offensive against the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic in East Ukraine. The US secretary of state accused Russia of moving APCs, tanks and rocket launchers to the pro-Russian rebels and claimed to have evidence of a missile firing at the time of the incident. Kiev produced “intercepts” indicating the rebels had indeed shot down MH-17. Russia replied these were composite reconstructions and denied having supplied any heavy weapons including BUKs to the rebels. They suggested the rebels had captured many weapons from Ukrainian government forces, which are known to have BUKs. The Ukraine government denied it had any SAM sites in the area.
The rebels had earlier shot down at least two Ukrainian military aircraft. Did this indicate they were in possession of BUKs? They may have needed an option against the Ukrainian air force as they did not have an air force of their own. From where could they have got a BUK? More importantly, how would they fire it without technical support and sophisticated equipment? The Russians insist they did not provide any.
According to Russian sources MH-17 was asked by Kiev air traffic control (ATC) to deviate from its designated route 200 kilometres to the north which took it straight over the conflict site. It was also allegedly asked to lower its altitude to below 10,000 meters which would take it into a no-fly zone. Can this be verified? Reportedly the tapes of the alleged ATC communication with MH-17 were seized by the Ukrainian intelligence.
According to the well known analyst/journalist, Pepe Escobar, a Spanish national, Carlos, was in the Kiev ATC at the time and later tweeted time-lined data as well as his observations. Carlos said MH-17 was accompanied by two Ukrainian aircraft which did not shoot it down. According to him it was the Ukrainian interior not defence ministry that ordered the shooting down of MH-17 by a SAM. Carlos has disappeared. Data gone. Carlos gone. Were they ever there? The plot thickens.
According to the flight tracker Pathfinder the airspace over the conflict zone was used regularly by several other commercial airlines since it was considered by ICAO not to pose any significant risk. Indeed high altitude commercial air traffic over conflict zones is normal practice. Some airlines, however, avoided this particular route because of technical reasons or foreign office warnings.
According to Escobar, Malaysia is where the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission is located which has already found Israel guilty of crimes against humanity. So was it targeted as an act of vengeance? But Moscow has been accusing Kiev of Nazism and fascism, not Zionism!
The pro-Russian forces should have known commercial aircraft were regularly using the air space above them at altitudes of 10,000 meters or higher. So why should they confuse MH-17 with a Ukrainian military aircraft? However, Ukrainian International Airways used the same route. But Russian versions suggest the approved flight path for international commercial air flights, including MH17, was 200 kilometres south of the conflict zone, into which MH-17 was deliberately diverted at an allegedly lower altitude. Why would MH-17 fly into a no-fly zone even if instructed to do so?
The burden of these versions, whether concocted or not, seems to be that a trap may have been set for trigger happy east Ukrainian rebels, who may have been allowed to capture a BUK without being able to operate its friend-or-foe identification (FFI) equipment, to lure them into thinking they were shooting down a Ukrainian military or civilian aircraft. By why would the Ukrainians risk their own aircraft? Or, as alleged, did the Ukrainians shoot down MH-17 in a scenario constructed to point the finger at Moscow?
Given that untrained soldiers were unlikely to have been able to fire the BUK missile, would Russian or Russian-trained east Ukrainian personnel have dared to shoot down any commercial aircraft without express authority from Moscow? Putin is tough, ruthless, but not insane.
The larger picture cannot be ignored. Since the breakup of the USSR the US has been determined never to allow Russia to replace it. Putin is determined to do just that. The US reneged on its promise not to expand Nato eastwards. It set up missiles in Poland. It egged on Georgia to take on Russia. It made a fool of Russia over Libya. It sought to eliminate Russia’s only base in the Mediterranean on the Syrian coast. It tried to deny Russia its main naval base in Crimea. It supported the world’s most corrupt elements in Kiev as long as they challenged Moscow.
Putin has struck back. He used his energy clout, and now his military clout. That is unforgivable. The world must learn no country can get away with defying Washington so openly and militarily. A successor to Stalin must be portrayed as a successor to Hitler.
There are, however, two developments that do not look good for Russia and its clients. One is the failure to protect the international crime scene and disallowing free access to it for international investigators and monitors. The other is the reportedly deliberate tampering of the crime site including the handling of the black boxes. The removal of the bodies to initially unknown destinations also gave rise to suspicions. As Obama suggested the rebels – or their masters – had something to hide.
The full truth may never be established. But it has been a PR disaster for Putin. He has lost control of the narrative, although the international media is a well known instrument in the strategic tool-box of the west. Putin must know that his protégés in East Ukraine have become his greatest liability. They could in effect be pawns in a deadly game-plan to eliminate him and cut Russia down to size, or worse. Pro-Russian forces may well have been infiltrated by trained agent provocateurs. Or Putin’s alleged machismo and vanity may have led him into a deadly snare in which he lost control over his simians.
Cui bono? Who benefits? Washington has clearly benefited and Moscow may have to pay a very high price. But this does not establish who is to blame. Our own dear country has been led by its demented leadership on more than one occasion into disastrous ventures that any honest and informed assessment would have clearly foreseen.
For example, who benefited from Kargil in 1999? Who initiated it? The answers are clear. The same for 1965, 1971 and 1989! Of course, the larger historical context of any incident can be used to shift blame for it in any direction. But the political (and military) leadership of the day are exclusively and inescapably responsible for the policy options, choices, outcomes and consequences that occur on their watch. History cannot and will not excuse them.
Putin may seem vulnerable today. But he has the vehement support of 80 percent of his people who know how to suffer for what they historically value. Moreover he heads a nuclear weapons state that has a second strike capability. But the stigma of MH-17 will stay with him unless he cooperates with the international community and ruthlessly settles accounts with those who may have betrayed him.
The writer is a former envoy to the US and India.