Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Power Vertical

Putin Crosses The 'Lockerbie Line'

A protester holds up a photo of Vladimir Putin and Muammar Qaddafi in front of the White House on March 31, 2011.
A protester holds up a photo of Vladimir Putin and Muammar Qaddafi in front of the White House on March 31, 2011.

After getting pounded in the information war in the immediate aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Russia struck back this week -- albeit in a pretty unconvincing way.

The Kremlin released an odd video statement early on July 21 in which a visibly haggard Vladimir Putin blamed Kyiv for the disaster, called for negotiations to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and warned that "nobody has the right to use this tragedy to achieve selfish political ends." 

Later in the day, the Russian Defense Ministry dialed it up a bit. At a briefing in a slick high-tech conference room, generals spoke before flashing radar images on giant screens in a scene reminiscent of "Dr. Strangelove."

They claimed that an Su-25 Ukrainian fighter jet had tracked the Boeing 777 passenger jetliner prior to its crash and denied that Russia had provided separatists with antiaircraft systems -- or any other weapons. 

The generals overlooked the fact that an Su-25 can fly at a maximum altitude of 7,000 meters without a payload of weapons and at 5,000 meters when fully armed. MH17 was flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters.

Nevertheless, the allegation managed to muddy the waters for a bit. But hijacking a news cycle here and there won't be enough to change the predominant narrative that is quickly hardening as the evidence accumulates that MH17 was downed by a Buk surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Russia separatists.

"Although the Crimean and Ukrainian operations have shown how effective even seemingly crude information warfare can be in distracting, bamboozling, and blunting Western concern, it is hard to see how Moscow can spin this one away," Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's security services at New York University and co-host of the Power Vertical Podcast, wrote in "Foreign Policy."

On last week's podcast, a recurring theme was that Putin had crossed something that Kirill Kobrin, co-editor of the Moscow-based history magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," called "the Lockerbie line," in reference to the terrorist attack that downed Pan American Flight 103 in 1988.

That is, that, like Muammar Qaddafi then, the Russian president may have crossed the psychological point where it becomes very difficult -- if not impossible -- to even pretend that he is a respectable leader anymore.

"It is going to be very difficult not to regard Putin's Russia as essentially an aggressive, subversive, and destabilizing nation after this. This one plane becomes symbolic of so much more," Galeotti said on the podcast

"I do think that Russia's position in the world will have changed irrevocably. I do think people will be thinking of Putin and the Putin regime as a problem. And the inclination is going to be: What do we do about this problem?"

Others, like "Washington Post" columnist and author Anne Applebaum, have picked up on the Lockerbie metaphor.

"When the Libyan government brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, the West closed ranks and isolated the Libyan regime," Applebaum wrote in a recent column.

Even before the downing of Flight MH17, Kremlin watchers like Alexander Motyl of Rutgers University were arguing that Russia's proxy war in eastern Ukraine amounted to "state-sponsored terrorism" (by U.S. law's definition of the term) and should be treated as such. 

Meanwhile, Reuters reported, quoting Western diplomats and officials, that the Red Cross has made a confidential legal assessment that Ukraine is officially in a war and shared that assessment bilaterally. The move opens up the possibility for future war crimes prosecutions, including potentially for the downing of Flight MH17.

"Clearly it's an international conflict, and therefore this is most probably a war crime," an unidentified Western diplomat told Reuters.

And even if it never comes to that, Putin is already losing a degree of the soft power he had been accumulating -- particularly in Europe.

"If it turns out -- as appears to be the case -- that Russia supplied air defense systems to the separatists and sent crews to man them (since operating those systems requires extensive training), Russia could be held responsible for shooting down the plane," George Friedman wrote in  

"And this means Moscow's ability to divide the Europeans from the Americans would decline. Putin then moves from being an effective, sophisticated ruler who ruthlessly uses power to being a dangerous incompetent supporting a hopeless insurrection with wholly inappropriate weapons."

Speaking on July 22, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite criticized European leaders for sacrificing their values and their security for the sake of doing business with Putin, who she said operates according to the principle of "buy and rule."

"We see the Mistralization of European policy," Grybauskaite said, in reference to France's $1.6 billion deal to supply Russia with two Mistral warships.

Hours later, French President French President Francois Hollande said he was prepared to back out of part of that deal.

Hollande said he was ready to cancel the sale of the second Mistral -- which is not yet paid for and is due to be delivered in 2016 -- if the European Union decides to expand its sanctions against Moscow, Bloomberg reported.

"I don't think there is any way that Putin can phoenix-like emerge from these flames as some kind of reinvented and reborn friend of the West and ally," Galeotti said on last week's Power Vertical Podcast.

"No politician is going to be saying they peered into his eyes and looked into his soul and thought he was a wonderful chap."

But if Putin has truly become that toxic, what effect will that have on Kremlin policy? Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky is not optimistic.

"If he feels the pressure increase on him, he may boost help for the separatists, stoke up the confrontation with the West, thereby raising the stakes of the game," Belkovsky wrote in "Snob."

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Ukraine,Vladimir Putin,Russia,Ukraine Crisis,Muammar Qaddafi,Flight MH17

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: George from Georgia from: USA
July 22, 2014 19:15
... except Qaddafi did not have several thousand nuclear warheads and basically held "only" 5 or 6 million Libyans hostage, while Putins hostages are, at the very lest, several hundred million people of Russia and neighboring countries, but probably the entire world :(
I think the only way out is to make Russians suffer, so that they (eventually) overthrow him and move Russia toward democracy
In Response

by: Pat Saison from: CT
July 22, 2014 22:12
Hey, Putin is a good leader, and not as much a devil and US makes him out to be. He's got more gumption than Obama. It is a difficult situation, no one wanted to down a civilian plane, and he certainly cannot be condemned or held responsible for it.

Situation is more cloudy than when US shot down Iranian civilian airliner--that was even less excusable--trained personnel making error in judgment.
In Response

by: Samuel from: Russia
July 23, 2014 23:51
I think we should sanction the USA for Iraq, Afganistan, Libiya, Yugoslavia..... The list will continue..... There seems to be one rule for the USA and another for Russia. The whole world knows that the USA simply does what it wants.Who gave it the right to be God? why do the USA decide who is right and what should be done?
In Response

by: Bill Webb from: Phoenix Arizona USA
July 23, 2014 15:21
It is not in the interest of the USA or anyone else to try and destabilize Russia in any way, nor is it our place to meddle in their politics. The restraint Russia has shown so far would not continue if we do not respond in kind.
In Response

by: Pat Saison from: CT
July 24, 2014 18:54
USA assumes it is first among equals, and it is superior to others, and need not obey rules--and cites rules that should apply to others, and yet violates or does not adhere to them. Do as I say but not as I do.

This is the definition of a bully, and what a bully never wants is a challenger, or potential challenger. That is why it is always against Russia, and trying to contain China. A bully always justifies its actions, and whatever it does is noble and benign, whereas others are malignant and evil.

Bully likes its little cronies to toe the line and suck up. Europe used to, now not listening. In Asia, Japan, Philippines and Australia are model cronies--suck up and listen, particularly Philippines and Japan. Japan is wagging its tail mightily, getting concessions from its master.

by: Ray Finch from: Lawrence, KS
July 23, 2014 02:35
Another Putin-watershed? I have doubts. It’s July and warm now, but the political leadership in many European countries understand that they will be booted out of office if their electorate freezes this winter.

While it does nothing to console the grieving, the pro-Russian separatists (if they were indeed responsible for downing MH-17) were not likely aware that they had targeted a civilian airliner on their radar screen. Therefore, the comparison with Qaddafi and the Lockerbie terrorist attack are not altogether accurate/appropriate. Even in an international court, there’s a difference between intentional homicide and manslaughter.

I tend to agree with Belkovsky that there might be a greater danger in cornering Putin into a political corner. Not only does Putin have the support of the Russian people behind him if he were to choose force to secure pro-Russian regions in SE Ukraine, but isolating him internationally may help to transform Putin into an actual pariah where he feels that further aggression is the only option. Seems like a sure recipe for a wider conflict.

I fear that the conduct of the current government in Kiev is not winning the hearts and minds of the locals in the Donbass region. Until they do, I’m afraid that Putin is going to remain popular (at least among many Russians) and this conflict will continue to boil.
In Response

by: Regular Joe from: USA
July 23, 2014 18:32
I generally agree with your comments on the validity of comparing the shooting down of MH-17 w/ Lockerbie, but why the legalistic disclaimer about if the separatists were "indeed responsible"? The data already released shows pretty clearly the plane was shot down by a powerful, advanced SAM located in the separatist-occupied region. The only way the separatists aren't responsible is if the SAM system was manned by actual Russian military personnel, in which case Putin's guilt would be unquestionable. The separatists accidentally (drunkenly and incompetently) shooting down the jetliner is the most likely and at this point, least condemnable, possibility.

As for the Ukrainian government's legitimacy, from what I've read elsewhere, Ukrainian public opinion is coalescing against Russia, with the exception of areas under separatist control, even in the east. Even most of the "separatists" aren't from the Donbass, but rather mercenaries and adventure seekers from all over the former Soviet Union.

If this incident doesn't severely damage Putin's reputation (and eventually, power) at home, it says nothing good about the Russian people.
In Response

by: Ray Finch from: Lawrence, KS
July 23, 2014 20:53
Thanks for your comment. My doubts likely stem from what I consume. I spend most of my working hours monitoring Russian state media, and the difference between the Western/US narrative and that of the Kremlin-approved media regarding this tragedy is black and white. As a number of sources have pointed out, legions of Kremlin spin-meisters have created a powerful counter-narrative which places the blame for this disaster on leaders in Washington and Kiev. Given the info-diet of the average Russian, where the Kremlin leadership is portrayed as defending the country against western jackals, this disaster will likely only further popular support for Putin.

You have to give the Russians some credit. They have been working overtime to counteract the first incriminating evidence which pointed to the pro-Russian separatists in E. Ukraine as the culprits to this unintentional crime (whom I tend to believe as the responsible party).

For those who know Russian, Yulia Latynina dedicated her weekly radio program ‘Access Code’ on Echo Moscow this past Saturday (19 July) to sorting out the early intel. Her indictment is damning. She maintains that the Bukh AD system was moved in from Russia just prior to the shoot down and returned early the following morning (18 July). She believes that the weapon system was likely manned by regular Russian soldiers/officers, familiar with the complexity of this system, and they were attempting to shoot down another Ukrainian transport plane (based on leaked intel from the Ukr Gen Staff). I have monitored her broadcasts for the past couple of years and most of her observations have withstood scrutiny. I suspect she has access to some good Russian sources. She provides a number of other important details and context for this disaster. (link below)
In Response

by: zinck from: europe
July 23, 2014 22:09
Putins "army" are not nice people - a bunch of trigger-happy psychopaths. These type of conflicts tend to attract the worst elements, on both sides. Our social norms forbid killing people, but in this case, it is perfectly accepted and encouraged, you get even paid for the killing. So much for that.

Putin is playing with fire... as a good sport he is enjoying the game. However, the conflict in East Ukraine will probably spill over into Russia. Shooting from Russian soil on Ukrainian forces have been reported several times. Also the Russian side has received some stray artillery shells from Ukrainian side. The border is not very well defined, which makes the whole thing even more explosive.

At some point, there will be an accident with many victims on Russian side, similar to MH17, like a shell hitting a Russian school. Then Putin will be drawn directly into the conflict, to his personal regret and to the joy of the separatists (they have been trying to drag Russia into the fighting for 3 months). A real war will start, not a war game with some sociopaths, which are expendable. Sanctions and cold war will move to a completely new level of bellicosity.

by: Anonymous
July 23, 2014 03:25
no shame on your faces
realy false as giuda .
You don't shows any evidance after 6 days
and still you ape here doing your job of layer .
Mercenaries of information !

by: Stupid Lying Yanks from: US of Ass
July 23, 2014 12:03
More pathetic US propaganda.

Despicable war warmongering scum!

In Response

by: Dan from: Czech Republic
July 23, 2014 14:25
Tell us how you really feel!
In Response

by: jojnjo from: Dublin, Ireland
July 23, 2014 15:14
Keep it up...Radio Free Europe & Power Vertical, seemingly the Russian & Separatists trolls don't like seeing or hearing the truth.

Oh as regards Putin, I told you at the beginning of his charade into Crimea...that he would bring the world lots of "Misery" & he has!

In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
July 23, 2014 15:32
Ah, just let them talk. Can't you see they are bluffing? They will lose the war in Ukraine the same way the lost the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or will screw up the same way they did in Venezuela.
The Ukrainian military is running out of everything: they raised the upper conscription age up to 60 (!!!) years yesterday, imagine! The next step of Ukraine will be making 13 year old boys join the national guard and send them to "fight" in Donetsk. I remember one guy from Germany tried to do something like that back in 1945, but it did not really help him...

by: American Tolerast
July 23, 2014 16:44
We should all try to stay positive. At least the planes bringing remains back home to the Netherlands won't have extra weight from jewelry, purses, or wallets. Likewise, the liquor stores and brothels of the Donetsk People's Republic, roughly 70% of its GDP, will run a brisk business for at least the next week.

by: Gregory Allen Leeds from: Lewes,DE. USA
July 23, 2014 20:39
The news reports about the re-opening of the listening post at Lourdes, Cuba was countermanded by Putin hinself and has to be looked at as a possible cause for the act. Putin was put in the same position by his onetime ally Hugo Chavez, who had him on a podium when Chavez started ranting into a TV camera on a mirophone demanding the Qeeen of England give back the Falkland Islands to Argentina. The implication of Russia siding with Argentina could not have been lost on the Royal Navy, who the Former Soviet Union would not tangle with when they did have the ships under Gorshkov.

by: arslonga vitabrevis from: usa
July 24, 2014 06:54
What worries me is that Putin, Girkin and Demon will pull this again and it will only escalate. There is nothing that has proven to really call them to task.
I feel there could have been survivors at the site that, if rescuer’s were allowed on site, may have saved. After reading about how the terrorists captured and beat a local man going on site to help any survivor, I wondered if the terrorists had murdered any survivors.
So I did some research. There could have been survivors. Furthermore I found something alarming - a historical scenario much like this that shows this could be repeated and Putin and the rebels could shoot down another airliner if they are as inhuman and bent on destruction as ZIPRA was.
In researching all other plane shoot downs that did indeed have survivors, as I feel the rebels are guilty of murder in denying access to the area thereby denying rescue; they did not have all bodies accounted for and therefore could not know if they missed anyone that was perhaps still alive…but in researching I found that there have been other instances where there have been survivors. Not only this but the terrorists who found the plane shot the survivors. Not only this but after they did this the first time, they did it a second time, 5 months later. It was also a regular carrier, Air Rhodesia, carrying civilians. The situation was The Rhodesian Bush War where first flight 825 was shot down and then 5 months later 827 was shot down by ZIPRA guerillas in 1978 and 1979; look it up on Wikipedia.
This is alarming. I think the Rebels and Putin are insane. I would not trust them to not pull this again after researching on the likelihood of survivors and seeing this is not the first time something this horrible has happened. These people have no souls.

by: just think from: australia
July 27, 2014 02:05
Who thinks that Putin is so stupid to shoot down a passanger liner and damage his position in that way. Its quite possible that the separatists have the weapons system in question from before the civil war. But even then its unclear what they would want them gor since they are quite successful in bringing down low-flying attack planes.

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or