Russia: The Hard Press on Putin

Published on July 23, 2014

President Vladimir Putin appeared on Russian television in the wee hours of the morning of Monday, July 21, at 1:40 a.m., in the aftermath of the global outcry and accusations over Moscow’s complicity in the downing of the MH17 civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine and its continued role in fostering the broader crisis with its neighbor and with the West.

In that defiant yet rambling speech, Putin was seen, correctly, then and in his actions since, as attempting to also strike a tone intended to diffuse the rising tensions over the more emotionally charged humanitarian aftermath of the tragedy and subsequent body recovery and investigation of the crash site. It was the sloppy, cavalier, and disruptive response of the rebels on the crash site alleged to be controlled by Russia that had especially elicited an angry response and harsh round of threats from the European Union, hot on the heels of an escalation of sanctions by the United States.

*** Those attempts to diffuse the escalation of hostilities may not, however, translate into the de-escalation of broader tensions that is hoped for, and now perhaps even widely expected, to result from this tragedy. ***

*** The US administration has subsequently backed off of its most damning claims of possessing evidence of direct Russian involvement or assistance in the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines plane, evidence of which while widely repeated in the media had in fact only been tangential at best (see SGH 7/18/14, “Ukraine: The Aftermath of Flight MH17”). The briefing last night of the evidence the US did actually possess was intended to recalibrate the public message and reinforce US credibility in light of counter claims from Moscow, compromised in no small part by a constant stream of less than verifiable accusations by Washington’s allies in Kiev. But it was also intended to serve as a small branch for a potential climb down for Putin as well, averting the need for another forced confrontation. ***

*** But despite that reset and the calls for a universal cease-fire, what has been missing from the US and even the EU has been a lack of any recrimination whatsoever towards the government of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko for capitalizing on the turning of the tides against Russia and the rebels to step up attacks to clean up the rebel held territories in and around the actual cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. And indeed the US administration at this point looks if anything to be focused on pressing its advantage hard against what is perhaps a far more embattled Putin than is widely understood in the public and broader media. ***

*** Highly informed sources around the Kremlin are in fact focusing on warning signs of what may be a potentially serious internal rift within the President’s inner circle. The highly unusual early morning briefing Monday morning that resulted from a marathon and what appears to have been a highly contentious meeting of the Security Council of the Russian Federation has raised more questions than it has answered, not least of which are questions about Putin’s strained look and demeanor. Gone were the usual confidence, flair for words, and affability, replaced by an unusual halting search for precise language and message. ***

*** We are told that the Security Council meeting convened in Moscow was also highly unusual in that Putin pulled twenty three people into the meeting, including two key generals, as opposed to the nine that usually make up his council. And perhaps most telling was a message that we understand was delivered internally in addition to the message sent abroad: officials who are undisciplined and commit crimes in foreign wars from here on need to be dealt with more efficiently. It may have been only a coincidence that Putin was shown flanked in the background by his guards – a rare visual for the President – but there may have been a subtext intent to that visual message as well, both to Russia’s security and embattled business interests, namely a message that “I am (still) in charge.” ***

A Squeeze from the West

The tragedy of the clearly accidental shooting down of flight MH17 last Thursday initially revived talk of a cessation of hostilities and a cease-fire in Ukraine, including suggestions that Russia re-open its offer of an OSCE monitoring presence along its border with Ukraine to either help enforce the border or verify its claims that it is not supplying armaments to the eastern Ukrainian rebels.

But except for some cessation of hostilities narrowly limited to an area around the plane crash site, the conflict on the ground has actually intensified, reflecting anything but a cease fire, as Kiev has pressed on with its military offensive to regain control of the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.

And with the Ukrainian forces encircling and increasingly pressing the rebels from the villages into those regional cities, the rebels have fought back, culminating in the shooting down this morning of two more Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jets near the border with Russia – and the site of the downed Malaysian Air plane.

The Ukrainian authorities were quick to condemn the rebel forces for shooting the fighter jets down in an area that had been proclaimed off-limits. But, tellingly, there has been a deafening silence from the West when it comes to any questioning at all of what Kiev’s planes were doing flying in that area to begin with.

And indeed, in what appears to be a clear effort to keep Putin solidly on the defensive, in conjunction with the Ukrainian offensive there have been reports out of Washington that the Obama administration will now send advisors to Kiev to consider delivering some limited forms of “lethal assistance,” such as radios and night vision goggles, in addition to sleeping bags, financial assistance, and other forms of “non-lethal” aid provided till now.

Meanwhile the White House has gone out of its way to reiterate its threat of a further, and imminent, escalation of sanctions, which could include specifically asset freezes, if there are no concrete steps being taken by Moscow to essentially clear the border with Ukraine.

This is a significantly lower bar than the threat posed by the EU to impose sanctions if there are any further (i.e. new and increased) signs of evidence of Russian activity in eastern Ukraine. In effect the US sanctions strategy is now more closely aligned with the template of the harder-line road that eventually led to the nuclear negotiations with Iran – namely that Russia must “change its behavior” now to avoid further sanctions, before there is even any talk of de-escalation.

The internal pressure Putin is under not just from the economic and liberal interests in Moscow, but potentially now from the hardliners as well, may not bode well for the prospects of that de-escalation coming any time soon.

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