The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 has confronted Vladimir Putin with a dilemma he had sought to avoid: to continue to support the separatist insurgency in Ukraine in the face of a storm of international outrage, or cut the rebels off and allow them to be defeated by the government in Kiev.
Until the plane was hit by an anti-aircraft missile on Thursday, killing nearly 300 people, the Russian president had tried to hedge his bets according to circumstances on the battlefield and western pressure. He moved troops and tanks away from the border after the Ukrainian presidential elections in May, but moved them back in recent weeks.
Similarly, he initially appeared to distance himself from the rebels until Ukrainian forces under the newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, made significant gains in the east, triggering a new supply of Russian equipment over the border, including anti-aircraft missiles.
The MH17 disaster forces his hand. Anything he does now will attract much more scrutiny. Arms shipments across the very porous Ukrainian border will now be seen as a direct threat to the international community. But pulling the plug on the separatists would leave them vulnerable to Ukrainian forces, handing a strategic defeat to Putin.
It is already clear from Friday’s UN security council meeting that if the rebels are found to have used a Russian weapon, Moscow will be more isolated than at any time in recent history.
The western response is to build the circumstantial case against the Russian-backed separatists while awaiting an international inquiry.
If that investigation confirms the early suspicions, one western option would be to declare the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) a terrorist organisation, said Ben Judah, the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin.
“Putin’s greatest worry is that (the US) Congress will deem the DNR a terrorist organisation, responsible for the worst attack on a civilian airliner since 9/11, which would make Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
“He will do anything possible to avoid that wrath, while not admitting anything,” Judah said. “Meanwhile, this is a huge failure for GRU (Russian military intelligence), the FSB (the secret police) and the special forces. What kind of people are not capable of distinguishing a Malaysian airliner in the sky? It would not be surprising if the people involved were drunk. So heads will likely roll,” Stephen Sestanovich, a former US ambassador to Moscow, said Putin’s past behaviour made him difficult to predict.
Meanwhile, after a “very intense” conversation with the Russian president, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Saturday must act to allow access to the Ukranian rebel-held crash site of flight MH17 so bodies can be removed.
“He (Putin) must now take responsibility vis-a-vis the rebels,” Rutte told journalists in The Hague after pro-Russian separatists hindered access to the crash site where 298 died in Thursday’s plane crash, 192 of them Dutch.
“The Netherlands and the world will see that he does what needs to be done,” Rutte said.
“Given today’s developments and the images from this morning, I sent a message to the president to once more exert his influence on the rebels,” Rutte added. Rutte said that he had spoken to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and that they also said Putin must act.