Worst Case Scenario

Why Putin Let MH17 Get Shot Down

Russia has been escalating its war in Ukraine for weeks. The urgency to win turned to recklessness.

Olivia Harris/Reuters

President Putin has been recklessly escalating the crisis in eastern Ukraine since he was embarrassed and outmaneuvered by the Ukrainian president three weeks ago. Allowing a passenger jet to be shot down is the act of an increasingly desperate man.

The Kremlin ordered tanks, heavy weapons and Russian fighters to pour over the border stoking up the crisis until tragedy struck. We should have seen it coming; on Wednesday morning the front page of Foreign Policy magazine had a headline that should have sent shockwaves through the geopolitical landscape: Russia Is Firing Missiles At Ukraine.

The story followed several Russian citizens posting videos to social media which they said show GRAD rockets being fired from Russian territory toward Ukraine. By triangulating the different camera angles, my team at The Interpreter proved that the unguided rockets were indeed being fired into Ukraine from Russia. Thursday morning, there were reports that a group of Ukrainian soldiers had been hit by the rocket fire and were actually receiving medical treatment on the other side of the border, ironically enough in the same town from which the rockets had been launched in the first place.

This should have been huge news. How could things in Ukraine have deteriorated to the point where Putin was now engaged in such a reckless act of aggression? Of course, it was huge news... but for only a few hours. Quickly this headline was buried under the news that another Malaysian airlines flight was missing, and evidence is steadily growing that either Russian-backed separatists or Russia itself may have fired the missile that brought it down.

While much of the media is trying to figure out who shot this aircraft down, with what weapon and where it was obtained, it might be more instructive to focus instead on the 'whys' of this incident.

Why would Putin want to shoot down a commercial airliner? And if it was an accident, why would Putin allow the separatists to have a weapon this powerful without having full control over how it was used?

The answer to that question reveals that the situation in Ukraine, and in Moscow, is much, much worse than many had feared.

The first thing we have to understand is that the Kremlin spent a lot of time and money to bring down, either deliberately or accidentally, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. The prime suspect is a Buk surface-to-air missile system. This is not a shoulder-fired weapon easily smuggled across the border, a point-and-shoot heat-seeking weapon that could be used with little training by anyone who got their hands on it. This is an advanced and battle-proven series of highly sophisticated vehicles which coordinate to track targets with radar and fire missiles so advanced that they were designed to knock smart bombs and cruise missiles out of the sky. Whoever launched this weapon was highly trained and extremely well-equipped.

How, then, could such an advanced weapons system mistake a civilian airliner for a Ukrainian military aircraft? The short answer is that while the Buk system is able to work in isolation, it was never meant to. These types of advanced anti-aircraft systems would typically be used as part of a whole-military response to a threat, utilizing a nation-wide radar system, airborne radar systems, and a coordinated command and control structure that would identify targets and call the shots.

The firing of GRAD rockets and the shooting down of a civilian airplane are part of a pattern, a last-ditch desperate attempt to salvage a win in eastern Ukraine at any cost. In the last several weeks, Russia has pumped dozens of tanks, self-powered howitzers, armored vehicles and militants across the border to the Russian-backed insurgents.

Almost three weeks ago Ukraine’s government and the separatists had entered into at least a tentative ceasefire, and Russia believed the separatists could diplomatically outmaneuver Kiev. But Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, did not extend the ceasefire, as even his European allies thought he would. Instead he launched a sudden strike on the separatists, retaking a series of key rebel strongholds.

Putin was the one who had been outmaneuvered, and the effort to covertly support the separatists in eastern Ukraine was falling apart. Now the veil has fallen. Russia is almost overtly supplying the separatists with military support. But Putin’s urgency in Ukraine has turned to recklessness, and Thursday’s events are the recklessness of Putin epitomized.

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Why the urgency? Putin had been seeing surging popular support at home despite the flat-lined economy, the loss of a major ally in Ukraine’s ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, and the problematic Winter Olympics that popularized the Twitter hashtag #SochiProblems. The reason was the perception that Putin had won a decisive victory by annexing Crimea and standing up to the West.

But in recent weeks Moscow’s thinkers and pundits have written that they believe Putin’s support could collapse. A failure to achieve further victory in Ukraine has led analysts to predict that Putin’s support could drop significantly, and Russia’s leading pollsters already see evidence that these predictions could be right.

Since sanctions have had little effect on the economy but have dinged Putin’s support among his elites, he feels he needs the overwhelming support of the masses. Putin needs his war, and he needs to win, and without flooding eastern Ukraine with serious firepower and driving up civilian casualties it’s not clear if Putin can salvage a win at this point without openly invading, and doing so may carry significant costs that undercut the gains.

And Putin has actually helped create the engine of popular uproar that both empowers him and hangs like a Sword of Damocles over his head. In recent months, editorially-independent but state-owned news agencies have been turned into Kremlin-run propaganda machines, efforts have been undertaken to censor the Internet, and even independently-owned media companies have seen their editors thrown out and replaced with the Kremlin’s people.

The Russian media landscape is now a nearly unified voice of disinformation and hate, spreading the narrative that the world is locked in a great battle between East and West, a battle which will be lost unless Putin is allowed to win it. With every passing week Putin becomes more like the totalitarian dictators who helped divide the world along these lines just a few generations ago, and he is now a victim of his own mechanisms.

And there is no sign that this cycle will be broken any time soon. If Putin thinks his efforts to regain the upper hand in eastern Ukraine have gone too far, he’s certainly not reflecting that in his rhetorical answer to this tragedy. Instead, Putin blamed Ukraine for the downing of the aircraft, saying, “This tragedy would not have happened if there had been peace on that land, or in any case if military operations in southeastern Ukraine had not been renewed,” in televised comments.

“Without doubt the government of the territory on which it happened bears responsibility for this frightening tragedy,” he said, adding that he had urged the Russian authorities to do everything possible to help with the investigation into the incident.

“We will do everything that we can so that an objective pictured of what happened can be achieved,” Putin said.

“This is a completely unacceptable thing.”

But providing an objective picture is not what the Kremlin and its media apparatus is known for. Instead, the Russian media are already conducting a disinformation campaign about the facts, while the Western world lines up to (justifiably) blame Russia for this mess. While the unified rejection of Russia's actions are absolutely necessary, and while stronger sanctions need to be inflicted on Russia to change the economic calculus of such reckless hostility, such actions will only serve as evidence to the Kremlin's pundits and the people who listen to them that this is all just one giant conspiracy to isolate and weaken Russia.

The cycle will continue. Putin's recklessness in eastern Ukraine will only grow. Many more lives, often of civilians stuck in the crossfire, will be lost. In the warped cycle of disinformation and power that Putin has created, this senseless violence makes perfect sense, and hundreds or even thousands of civilian casualties are just collateral damage.