WASHINGTON—“The world’s biggest crime site,” as one of the OSCE monitors described the sickening aftermath in eastern Ukraine on Friday, doesn’t have Vladimir Putin’s name on it.
Not in so many words. Not yet.
That may take a while, given the treatment of the first international visitors to wade through the billion-piece remains Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
A tightly controlled peek of a tiny patch of the ruination that spans more than 10 square kilometres is all they got — all under the twitchy, pugnacious watch of the ramshackle Russian rebels.
Whither the black boxes that now have been spirited away, the heavily armed separatists could not say. The first-look team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was unable even to establish who among the heavily armed men was in charge before they were summarily frog-marched offsite, just 45 minutes into what they were assured would be unfettered access.
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That’s the way Putin’s proxies roll, as those of us who’ve tramped through the unravelling end of Ukraine have argued before. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of chaotic, nihilistic, nativist ineptitude. It’s weaponized. It’s propagandized. It’s scary.
It been easy for most people to compartmentalize these months of ragged ambiguity since the protesters on Kyiv’s Maidan square turned the country upside down, sparking Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the shadowy interventions that followed.
Russia versus Ukraine; a European thing; not good, but not quite total war, right? And not at all in our North American faces, either.
And now the world has been yanked from the sky, shattered flat upon Putin’s monster. Or by Putin’s monster, as the preponderance of circumstantial evidence suggests.
Among the connecting dots, damning Ukrainian cellphone intercepts — still to be verified, yet already causing shock waves — quoting Russian military intelligence and their on-the-ground mercenaries discussing the before and after of deploying the Buk-M surface-to-air missile system. (Before: “We have Buk, we will be shooting them down to hell.”) Later, footage of the suspect Buk-M unit was filmed and posted to YouTube, being spirited away by rebels, with two of its four missiles spent.
And here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4HJmev5xg0
Other dots included the scrubbed post from a site that routinely shares messages from Col. Igor Strelkov, self-appointed defence minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, hailing the “bird drop” of what rebels initially thought was a Ukrainian AN-26 military transport plane. Attempts to erase the dot from the web failed miserably, thanks to a crowd-sourced world that now captures everything for posterity.
With or without flight recorder data, the shifting stories from the Russian rebel camp appear to be vectoring toward collapse. Among the varying explanations Friday, Strelkov appears to have floated a twisted, conspiratorial trial balloon Friday suggesting the MH17 victims may have boarded the plane dead.
“A significant number of the bodies weren’t fresh,” Strelkov, also known as Igor Girkin, was quoted as saying by the pro-rebel Russkaya Vesna news site paydayloans.
Strelkov is implying a vast Western setup, straining all credulity. Left unspoken is the inference, “Yes, we did it. We took the bait.”
The word terrorism began flying the moment MH17 stopped. But if the most plausible pieces of preliminary evidence ultimately add up, nobody on the ground meant to bring the world down upon it. Blundering incompetence — colossal, breathtakingly reckless, historic incompetence — involving men equipped with a weapon far greater than themselves, is the more believable scenario.
But all these dots, if that is how they add up, become stains. A stain that will adhere forever to Vladimir Putin.
Those conclusions weren’t anywhere near President Barack Obama’s tongue Friday, as he stepped forward to demand an immediate ceasefire and unimpeded access to the crash site.
As Russian chess master Garry Kasparov, long a thorn in Putin’s side, tweeted, “Now we come to the part where cautious politicians make bland statements hinting politely at a terrible truth everyone already knows.”
But the far larger question is what does Putin do with this stain? Does he own it – and let it live forever on his Wikipedia entry as his own personal Lockerbie? The early signs suggest not, given that Russian state TV on Friday began editing Wikipedia to blame Ukraine for the crash.
A number of Putinologists are suggesting even Putin himself may not have the answer, given the unpredictable nature of what has been unleashed in Ukraine.
“Putin-the-man is greatly at odds with Putin-the-myth, who is a fierce and forceful titan shaping the world in the name of Russia’s greater destiny,” wrote Mark Galeotti of ReadRussia.com.
“In fact, the real Putin is clearly a cautious, in some ways even paradoxically timid figure in his aggressions,” acting only when the odds are on his side. Thus, said Galeotti, the paradox of Ukraine is “that what Putin creates, he then fears.”
Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post, framed a moment of truth in which we are about to “learn something interesting about the Russian president.
“So far there is no sign of shock or shame in Russia. But in truth, this tragedy offers Vladimir Putin an opportunity to get out of the messy disaster he created in eastern Ukraine,” wrote Applebaum.
“He has the perfect excuse to denounce the separatist movement and to cut its supplies. If he refuses, then we know that he remains profoundly dedicated to the chaos and nihilism he created to Donetsk. We can assume he intends to perpetuate it elsewhere. And if we are not prepared to fight it, we should be braced for it to spread.”
David Remnick of the New Yorker offered a starkly contrasting scenario, based in part on insights from former Putin insider Gleb Pavlovsky, suggesting overheated Russian public opinion now may be beyond the president’s control.
“The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict,” Remnick quoted Pavlovsky as saying.
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