Caught in global storm over MH17, Russia battens down the hatches

Vladimir Putin has few options to deflect the wave of outrage from a world that increasingly sees Russia as responsible for separatist malfeasance in eastern Ukraine.

Evgeniy Maloletka/AP
A piece of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 lies in the grass near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, on Sunday.

President Vladimir Putin is trying to mollify world opinion over the July 17 downing of Malaysian Flight MH17.

On Monday, he urged people to wait for the outcome of official investigations before apportioning blame for the tragedy, and pledged that Russia "will do everything within its power" to help end the war in eastern Ukraine. Moscow also said it will support a UN Security Council resolution as long as it calls for an unbiased investigation of the crash and avoids politicizing the issue.

But many experts say there's probably nothing the Kremlin can do at this point to deflect the wave of global outrage. Russia is the main backer of the rebels in eastern Ukraine widely accused of shooting down the airliner, possibly using a Soviet-era anti-aircraft missile supplied by Russia. 

"I don't know what the Kremlin can do, even assuming that they understand the consequences that are coming," says Alexander Golts, military expert with the independent online journal Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

The US and European Union laid down a third wave of sanctions against Russia last week, including curbs on the ability of leading Russian banks and oil companies to raise capital in the West. Britain and some other EU countries are pushing for a further escalation of sanctions, perhaps as early as this week, in the wake of the MH17 tragedy.

Most Russian security experts admit that Moscow has helped stoke the fires of rebellion in eastern Ukraine, though some insist it's nothing the US hasn't routinely done in its own region, or what Washington and its allies are currently doing in Syria.

In fact, it's an open secret in Moscow that ultra-nationalists such as Alexander Dugin and Sergei Kurginyan have been raising money, recruiting volunteers, and using their considerable influence within Russia's security establishment to press the Kremlin to provide more direct support to the Ukrainian rebels. None of that could happen without at least tacit approval from Russia's security services.

Mr. Dugin has hinted that the Kremlin's mood towards his efforts may be changing. He wrote on his Facebook page on Saturday that "Following the crash of the Boeing the situation has again become critically difficult. Our assistance is blocked, again...."

The Kiev government insists that the Kremlin is conducting an outright Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Washington tends to agree. Russian experts say that money, arms, and volunteers wouldn't be flowing to the rebels if the Kremlin actively shut down supply lines, but it's not yet clear even to them to what extent official Russia has been involved.

"There is no real border down there [between eastern Ukraine and Russia]. It is a zone with a blurred frontier, no political responsibility, and no clarity about what is actually happening," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin aide and public relations expert for Mr. Putin. "Now it's become a huge problem for Russia, and the question is whether Putin can take things in hand, use Russia's influence to pacify the crisis. It's a very awkward situation."

Mr. Golts says that Russia does bear the blame for initiating the Ukrainian insurrection. "It's enough to note that half of the rebel leaders are Muscovites," he says. But that doesn't mean that the Kremlin can switch the rebellion off, even if it now wants to, he adds.

"All of our experience in these matters – and American experience as well – testifies that you can get these things started, arm and train people, send them in to stir up trouble for your adversaries, but you cannot control them afterwards. Proxy wars are a very risky enterprise. There will be blowback. We are getting a stiff dose of it right now. I don't see what Putin can do right now to extricate Russia from this," he says. "It's a total deadlock."

Some experts say Putin is probably doing all he can by pleading with the world not to politicize the tragedy, and battening down Russia's hatches until the wave of global outrage blows over.

"The mood in our establishment right now is indifferent to more sanctions. We will just face whatever comes and find our own way through the storm," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "We Russians, we tend to be fatalists."

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