News / Europe

Russia's Putin Not Blinking in 'Last Chance Saloon'

FILE - Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters.
FILE - Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the "last chance saloon" over the Ukraine crisis but appears to be doing little to get out of it.

Since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was brought down over east Ukraine, Putin has been under intense international pressure to persuade pro-Russian separatists accused by the West of shooting it down to stop fighting.

But for now he seems more intent on bluffing his way through than on trying to use this pivotal moment to emerge as a peacemaker by ending a conflict that has caused the worst tensions with the West since the Cold War.

"The only sensible step now would be to stop the fighting in Ukraine immediately and begin a political process," said Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank.

"The tragic and sudden loss of so many innocent lives should put a final point to the armed conflict. Or it may put the international conflict over Ukraine on a much higher and more dangerous level. The choice is still to be made, but the time is running out fast."

There is no evidence that Putin has made that choice, and he continues to keep the world guessing about his next moves.

There is also no sign of a major change of tack by the Russian leader since the airliner was brought down on Thursday, killing 298 people.

Rebels fight on

Putin, who denies supplying arms to the rebels who have risen up against Kyiv's rule of Russian-speaking east Ukraine, has made muted calls for a ceasefire and demanded an independent investigation in telephone conversations with Western leaders.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went so far as to say Moscow and Washington should use their influence with the rival sides to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

But there is no sign of any change in the rebels' behavior and the president has made no public appeal to them or called for new moves to tighten controls at Russia's border, where  Washington says arms are getting into Ukraine.

Most Russian media are painting a very different picture of events to Western leaders and Putin's allies have rallied around him, blaming the incident on Ukraine's pro-Western leaders and accusing Washington of orchestrating events in Kyiv.

The former KGB spy is being pushed into a corner by statements by Western leaders that this is his last chance to do something to end the crisis in Ukraine or face more sanctions.

But some Russian experts warn that this is a risky move that could backfire on the West. If you drive a man like Putin into a corner, they say, he will more often than not come out fighting.

"This is a dangerous game," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor, suggesting Putin would find it hard to justify backtracking on Ukraine to a domestic audience fed for months on media propaganda reminiscent of the Soviet era.

"How the Kremlin can get out of this is not clear after what has been done, and after what has been said on Russian television," he said in a radio interview.

Laying Low

Putin often lays low after big events that could require a review of long-term strategy.

Since the overthrow of a Ukrainian president sympathetic to Moscow in February, he has sought ways to maintain influence in a country seen by Russians as the cradle of their civilization.

After annexing the Crimea region in March, he has veered away from an armed invasion to back the rebels in eastern Ukraine and appeared content to let the chaos undermine the pro-Western leadership in Kiev.

Preventing Ukraine joining NATO and keeping some influence in the east have appeared key goals, preferably with more autonomy granted to the rebellious regions in the east.

But if the rebels are confirmed irrefutably to have shot down the airliner with a missile that came from Russia, Putin could go from being seen as just an outsider in global diplomacy to being treated as an international pariah.

Recalling the bombing of an airliner over Scotland in 1988 that was blamed on Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, political analyst Yulia Latynina said, "in one fell swoop we have been caught up with Gadhafi and [Osama] bin Laden."

Putin has shown several signs in the past few weeks that he wants to de-escalate the conflict because it risks getting out of control and further sanctions could cause serious damage to an economy already sliding towards recession.

But Western capitals accuse him of not backing up his promises to reduce tensions with actions, and he might yet risk the wrath of the West and further isolation.

Either choice of action entails risk and he is already under fire from some critics, some of whom may see a glimmer of an opportunity for the opposition, until now largely silenced and sidelined by the surge in popularity for Putin over Crimea.

"Putin should immediately have addressed the nation," Alexander Minkin, a political scientist, wrote in a blog.

"He didn't need to inform Obama but should have told the citizens of Russia what happened and that he had given an order to immediately start an investigation into whose weapon was used and how it got there."

Public criticism

Putin has been accused of a lack of transparency, indecisiveness and not caring before - when a Russian submarine sank and all 118 people aboard were killed in August 2000, shortly after he became president.

He came through that crisis but only after being criticized in Russia as well as abroad. For some Russians, his behavior was all too reminiscent of Soviet leaders' initial secrecy over the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Putin will also want to shake off any comparisons with the shooting down of a Korean airliner over the Soviet Union in 1983 which deepened the Cold War chill with the United States.

Until now he has repeatedly exploited divisions in the Western camp during global crises, including Syria, and may be trying to gauge the resolve of Obama's European allies to tighten sanctions against Russia.

Initially after the attack, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the biggest European Union state and long its economic powerhouse, suggested she still harboured doubts about imposing major new sanctions on Russia.

Germany is an importer of Russian gas and Germany's business lobby has been especially vocal in its criticism of sanctions. But since Merkel's initial comments, German leaders have also said this is Putin's last chance to act on Ukraine.

If the West acts as one, it will be much harder for Putin to emerge on top from the crisis.

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Comment Sorting
by: Aviator
July 20, 2014 10:26 PM
Enforcing a flight ban of Russian passenger and transportation aircraft is indeed practical if ALL Western Countries including NATO members implement the air ban. Non participating countries will identify themselves and perhaps passengers world wide will then avoid flying with them. The International Air Travel Association also need to subscribe to this plan. Once and for all atrocities such as this must have consequences and not be allowed, to simply be explained away, as the vagaries of war.

by: BasilP from: Phoenix, AZ
July 20, 2014 2:36 PM
Nice try Lavrov. Unfortunately for you, your boss doesn't give you more wiggle room.The fighting doesn't just need to stop, but the Russian fighters--who are not "rebels" but "foreign invaders" need to exit the country of Ukraine or be killed or imprisoned and allow the economy of Ukraine to function and progress. In addition, the one's responsible for this horrific tragedy need to be held accountable, including the persons responsible for providing such sophisticated weaponry into the hands of thuggish buffoons. Think about what Russia would do if armed insurgents from another country took over a few Russian villages. Why the double standard? Fact is, with all the talk of "brotherly" nation balderdash, Russia doesn't formally acknowledge Ukraine as an independent state, and in fact has no respect for Ukraine as a country. Russian thinking is anachronistic in viewing Ukraine as a satellite of Russia with Russia having a "right" to exercise control over it. This is dangerous thinking in the 21st century. Russian leaders now don't have just egg on their face, but also blood on their hands. No amount of talk and bluster can change this fact and the world knows it. The sooner Russian policy makers acknowledge this reality and act responsibly and truthful regarding this tragedy, as well as the larger role in sponsoring the body count in eastern Ukraine, the sooner the broken hearts can begin to heal and the outrage subside.

by: LO777
July 20, 2014 2:28 PM
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Iran Air Flight 655 was an Iran Air civilian passenger flight from Tehran to Dubai that was shot down by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes on 3 July 1988.
All 290 on board, including 66 children and 16 crew, died. This attack ranks seventh among the deadliest disasters in aviation history.
According to the Iranian government, Vincennes negligently shot down the civilian aircraft: the airliner was making IFF squawks in Mode III (not Mode II used by Iranian military planes), a signal that identified it as a civilian craft, and operators of Vincennes mistook for Mode II.
Later disclosures would prove that the Vincennes had entered into Iranian waters and initiated hostilities.
The United States did not apologize to Iran.
In Response

by: 1worldnow from: Earth
July 21, 2014 2:16 AM
Blah blah blah....hate America...blah blah blah.........Air flight 655.....blah blah blah.......hate America.........balh X 3! OK, the US has screwed up more than just this. So what does this have to do with Russia????? What does this have to do with all those people that were just murdered?????? Hate America, right on, we even have our own haters in the US as well! Hate away, to your heart's content. So what does that prove about this tragedy???
In Response

by: Igor from: Russia
July 21, 2014 12:10 AM
You are right! The USA has every right to shoot down any civilian plane without having to apologize anyone. They even did not apologize Sadam after labeled him of having mass destruction weapons. In fact he did not have such kind of weapons. When the Iranian civilian plane was shot down by US warship killing all passengers, no western country called it a crime against humanity and no western country blamed the USA for such crime. Simply because only westen citizens are considered humans. The USA is the number one superpower and it can do so.

by: Aviator
July 20, 2014 12:31 PM
Should Russia fail to hand over those responsible for the Malaysian aircraft atrocity to the Hague for trial, immediately, a total aircraft ban of Russian aircraft (passenger and transportation) throughout the world by Governments should be implemented and only lifted once those responsible for the atrocity, are delivered to the Hague.
In Response

by: Ed from: USA
July 20, 2014 6:57 PM
Sounds good, but also idealistic. Unbelievably, many countries still support Russia, ie. often those countries with authoritarian leaders themselves. Therefore a "total aircraft ban thruout the world" would be impossible.

by: Luther from: India
July 20, 2014 12:25 PM
If Putin is not taught of how tough he is trying to be, he already now bent on doing some serious evil to the world. After killing hundreds of innocent lives, with his bloody hands, he still tried make his next step move. He does not seem remorse for his innocent killings in his face. The world is ghastly waiting for what will be his next step move.

by: spence fleetwood from: liverpool uk
July 20, 2014 10:39 AM
How many warnings has Germany given to Russia Germany has no intention of implementing sanctions against Russia half of it's trade and energy comes from Russia Germany is a lot of hot air looking after it's own interests
In Response

by: Ed from: USA
July 20, 2014 7:03 PM
True! But I think some other European countries are dragging their feet as well. They need to realize, they may suffer in the short term, but Putin has done this to himself, and if Europe continues to hesitate, what additional dastardly deeds will he try?
In Response

July 20, 2014 5:37 PM
Th world should doubt about Germany's real motivation behind its behavior .Why german was always in the FRONT ROW when Maiden Square protest broke out but it disappeared right after Putin annexed Crimea . Worse still, it's always reluctant to impose harsh sanction on Russia . Is it A CONSPIRACY ??? Are the 4th Reich and 3rd Tsar emegrging ????????????
In Response

by: Maon from: USA
July 20, 2014 1:44 PM
The US and West have made an ill-contrived effort to hide its consorting with the Nazi party of Ukraine and ousting its elected government, spending billions, sending in the CIA and advisers and black ops to destroy the opposition and cause bloodshed, and now raise a false flag over eastern Ukraine that was likely caused by Kiev's launchers--and then follow with the idiotic claim that it is all President Putin's fault.

Ask yourself, whose homes are being shelled, whose electrical systems and water pumping stations are being destroyed, whose orphanages and schools and hospitals are being destroyed? And being driven out, they are labeled as "terrorists." I suppose that you claim this too is Putin's fault! However, the thousands that seek refuge in Russia know who is at fault!

The hatred of fascias-Nazis for communists came to the surface in Ukraine. Democracy lost its footing-- as we see it in Ukraine, in the Near East, in the West. I would ask, is the US more fascias today than it was 15 years ago? --with unprovoked wars, billions spent to tear down secular governments, W.H. drone assassinations, government programs dictated for citizens ...?

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