David Gray / Reuters

Putin’s calculus in Ukraine holds fast after MH17, but stakes are higher

Despite the tragedy, which the West blames indirectly on Russia, Putin seems intent to press on in Ukraine

When Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over territory in eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed rebels, killing all 298 people on board, Russian President Vladimir Putin was caught off guard: The separatist uprising Moscow has allegedly armed and supported since it erupted back in March appeared to be spiraling out of control.

And yet, even under threat of far-reaching Western sanctions and rare domestic pressure to stand down, Putin has shown no sign he plans to cut Ukraine’s rebels loose and bail on a project of geopolitical proportions. In fact, there has been no sign that Putin’s calculus has shifted at all.

On Tuesday, U.S. intelligence officials anonymously told Reuters and The Associated Press that while there was no direct evidence of Russian government involvement in shooting down Flight 17, Russia “created the conditions” for the downing by arming the separatists.

The Russian leader said he would heed the West’s call for Moscow to use its “influence” to rein in the rebels — whom he vehemently denies arming or training — and reiterated his call for a cease-fire between rebels and Ukrainian troops. At the same time, however, there were reports of continued weapons deliveries and convoys of vehicles moving across the Russia-Ukraine border into the separatist-held eastern regions. Meanwhile, Moscow has once again amassed tens of thousands of Russian troops along its western border with Ukraine in an apparent threat of invasion.

“Things have changed in that Putin's in real trouble,” said Mitchell Orenstein, an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. “But his approach hasn’t changed at all.”

The downing of MH17 has certainly raised the stakes over Russia’s alleged support for the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, whose days could be numbered amid an emboldened “counterterror” offensive by Ukrainian security forces. One immediate consequence of the MH17 crisis is that pro-Russian rebels will need to lay down their antiaircraft missiles for a time, which will leave them vulnerable once again to Ukrainian airstrikes.

Analysts say the takeaway from Russia’s recent posturing is that Putin’s resolve to destabilize Ukraine has held strong, despite MH17. Whether or not Putin feels the separatist movement has become a liability to his regional interests in the wake of the crash, he really can’t abandon the rebels now.

Putin’s domestic approval rating has soared to 86 percent over what Russians view as their leader standing up to Western encroachment in the former Soviet Union. If Putin were to finally bow to Western pressure, which has reached a fever pitch over MH17, that popularity would deflate.

Experts believe Putin’s directive has always been to hamstring Ukraine’s westward momentum, to make sure it stayed out of the European Union and NATO — neither of which seemed likely to happen — after Kiev spurned a Moscow-led Eurasian customs union. While annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March was a geopolitical victory over the West that played well back home for Putin, it isn't enough to permanently destabilize Ukraine.

On the contrary, if Putin stopped now, he would leave behind a Ukraine that has drifted even farther away from Moscow, which many Ukrainians blame for the unrest. Since the uprising began, the new president, Petro Poroshenko, has upgraded his country’s status with regard to NATO and has recently signed an association agreement with the European Union.

“His preliminary plan to destabilize the whole southeast of Ukraine has failed,” said Wojciech Kononczuk, a Ukraine expert with the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, Poland. “Instead, Ukrainian society is growing anti-Russian in a clear signal that the Kremlin just doesn’t understand Ukrainian moods.”

Perhaps most worryingly, if Putin let the rebellion fall by the wayside he could face an influx into Russia of disgruntled separatists, who could accuse Moscow of abandoning them and want to stir trouble.

“Putin is cornered,” said Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe expert with the German Marshall Fund. “He’s created a dynamic that forces him to push forward in Ukraine. Now he can’t let go.” 

On the other hand, the West's initial unity against Putin — over what it alleges is his indirect role in the MH17 downing — has already shown signs of cracking. As angry as Western leaders are, most analysts are skeptical that Europeans will muster the sanctions pressure necessary to clip Putin's wings.

On Tuesday, the European Union threatened harsher sanctions than its current meager regimen but kicked that can down the road until after a thorough investigation of the MH17 crash (which may never determine conclusively who is responsible). France, meanwhile, said it would go ahead with the sale of a $1.7 billion aircraft carrier to Russia, undermining a rare moment of European unity against Moscow, an important supplier of natural gas and a critical trading partner to Europe.

Perhaps calling the West’s bluff, Putin may still have his eye on a resolution to the separatist crisis similar to what Russia achieved in the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia in 2008. There Russia deployed troops to support the separatists in order to undermine the westward momentum of another former Soviet state.

Forbrig said he wouldn’t be surprised if Putin decided to launch a similar “peacekeeping” invasion of eastern Ukraine under the “well-worn cover” of protecting ethnic Russians, much as he did before annexing Crimea. To that end, Russian media have made a point of reporting heavily on the humanitarian situation in war-torn eastern Ukraine as well as on the tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who have streamed across the Russian border in recent months.

“At the moment, the separatists are not up to the job,” Forbrig said. “And Putin is determined to push ahead.”

But Ukraine is not Georgia, a country of few resources and limited geopolitical significance. Ukraine is larger and more central to Europe, and its NATO-trained army has demonstrated steely resolve against the separatists, said Orenstein. Not to mention that Ukraine’s separatists are active in the Donbass region, where considerable oil and gas reserves are located.

If the West managed to make good on its threats of far-reaching sanctions, now or after a potential Russian peacekeeping intervention, Putin could be under fire not only for steering a Russian nationalist rebellion into the ground but for crippling the Russian economy.

On Tuesday, Alexei Kudrin, a former Russian finance minister and a loyal ally of Putin, lashed out against Russia’s meddling in Ukraine and warned of the consequences of invasion in an unprecedented critique. “Russia in no way should interfere with military forces in east Ukraine. This would cause uncontrolled risks on both the economic and political levels,” Kudrin said.

He also likened the combined impact of the current U.S. and European sanctions to a “20 percent pay cut” for ordinary Russians, which would only be worsened by continued isolationism from the West.

Putin has shown little regard for his pariah status in the West, said Orenstein, but his perception at home has meant everything.

“Politics is a zero-sum game in Russia; movements can be sudden and catastrophic,” he said. If things sour over Ukraine, “people are going to criticize Putin more and maybe make a play for power. I think he’s running scared right now.”

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