Ukraine has been thrust into the center of world media attention by the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. This atrocity may have finally forced the international community to take the threat of Russia’s actions in the east of Ukraine seriously. Predictably, after the incident, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine went into overdrive, pumping out incredible nonsense such as Ukraine’s government ordering the shooting down of the aircraft in the mistaken belief that it was the Russian presidential plane carrying Russian President Vladimir Putin back to Moscow from Brazil. This and other equally bizarre conspiracy theories have since been lapped up by pro-Russian useful idiots and regurgitated all over the Internet. So the first thing to do, in speculating about what the Russian leader's next move might be, is to return to the real world and review what we know with reasonable certainty.
MH17 was shot down by a powerful ground-to-air missile system, and the aircraft broke up in the air, as we know from the large debris field of four to six square miles (at least). The only other likely cause of such destruction would have been a bomb on the aircraft, and there is no indication that there was one. In contrast, there is every indication that it was indeed a missile that shot down the plane – this was the early view of the Ukrainian authorities, who identified the weapon as a Buk-M or “Gadfly” anti-aircraft missile system, which was later corroborated by U.S. intelligence sources, who identified the trajectory and impact point of the missile using satellite date.
The Russian-led insurgents certainly had a Buk-M missile system (there are recent photos and videos of such systems in insurgent-held territory, and phone intercepts of insurgents discussing its deployment with their Russian handlers.) The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) also released damning phone intercepts of the insurgents reporting to their Russian superiors, in shock, that they had mistakenly shot down a civilian airliner. The SBU later released video it said showed the Buk-M system, on a trailer and minus one missile, being towed out of the area in the direction of Russia in the early hours of July 18, the morning after the shooting down of MH17.
It is also a fact that the Russian-led insurgents have been shooting down aircraft regularly – they may also have used the Buk-M system to down a Ukrainian air force An-26 transport aircraft a few days before the MH17 atrocity. From the initial reports by the insurgents, it is clear that they believed they had shot down another An-26 – the Russian insurgent commander Igor Girkin bragged about it in a blog post soon after the attack - the post was removed when it became clear that a civilian airliner had in fact been downed. The insurgents also removed a picture of a Buk-M tweeted a few days earlier from Twitter.
Thus, from the best evidence we have so far, it seems MH17 was shot down by a Buk-M system, probably supplied by Russia (the Ukrainians insist they had full account of all their missiles, and any systems captured by the insurgents were unusable, their warheads having been disabled in March.) There is mounting evidence that Russia is directly involved in supporting the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and is ultimately responsible for the shooting down of MH17.
Given all that, what is Putin’s next move likely to be? Here are some possible options:
1) End all support for insurgency, pull Russian mercenaries, weapons, tanks, artillery, rocket systems out of Ukraine, and prevent any flow of more mercenaries and supplies into eastern Ukraine.
Effect: Without continual resupply and reinforcement from Russia, the insurgents will be unable to resist the Ukrainian military, and the insurgency will start to collapse. The insurgents will put up a desperate fight in their last strongholds, and civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure are unfortunately inevitable before they are defeated. Ukraine will, however, eventually regain control of all of Luhansk and Donetsk, including the border region, and further Russian attempts to destabilize the area will be much harder to implement.
Why he’d do it: This would immediately take Western pressure of Putin, and he’d be able to cast himself in the role of peacemaker, with the chance of rehabilitating his image internationally, and warding off the threat of further sanctions that actually hurt Russia’s economy.
Why he wouldn’t: It would be seen in Russia as a serious defeat for Putin – a humiliation, and Putin does not like to be humiliated. Also, everything Putin has done so far indicates he does not much care about his international image – he’s much more concerned about his domestic image, and he wants to look strong and resolute, not weak, humiliated and defeated. In addition, ending the east Ukraine escapade might let Crimea slip back onto the agenda, and Putin himself might face more emboldened opposition in Russia itself.
2) Ignore all Western pressure and threats of sanctions, and go for an all-out invasion of eastern Ukraine, carrying out some false-flag operations as an excuse to send in first a large peacekeeping force, and then later push in regular troops to take over an area encompassing at least, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolayiv and Odesa oblasts, and possibly Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts as well.
Effect: The modern state of Ukraine would cease to exist – it would consist only of a landlocked rump state of western and central Ukraine, severely weakened, and no longer a “threat” to Russia. (Indeed, after a period Russia might start to meddle with the affairs of the remaining independent part of Ukraine.) Russia would gain control of one or more likely two vassal statelets (the Donbas Republic of Luhansk and Donetsk – and maybe Kharkiv – oblasts, and the state of Novorossiya, consisting of Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolayiv and Odesa oblasts, and possibly Dnipropetrovsk oblast as well.
Why he’d do it: This would be a spectacular win for Putin, ticking some great big strategic and domestic policy boxes. Russia would effectively expand its borders to the Dniester River in the west, and would gain a vital land border with Crimea. A new scale would have to be devised to measure Putin’s public popularity at home, the West would suffer a humiliating defeat that could even cause serious strains in Nato (especially when the Baltic states started to bay for iron-tight security guarantees). Moreover, Putin would have a free hand to turn his attention to other land-grab projects in Central Asia and perhaps even Belarus.
Why he wouldn’t: The Russian people themselves appear to be against a full invasion of Ukraine, although for the Kremlin propagandists and opinion managers this is not a huge problem. A bigger problem is the reaction of the West, which would definitely be against it. Putin could probably count on dithering and hot air from the EU in the face of a full invasion of Ukraine, but the U.S. reaction would be much firmer and more dangerous. The new state of Western Ukraine would de facto become another U.S. ally on the borders of “Russian land,” which would no doubt be well supplied with enough weapons to ward off further Russian expansion. Western Ukraine could even opt to conduct a partisan war in an attempt to regain its lost territory (as it would be entitled to do under international law.) The situation in the conquered territories could end up being as much of a mess as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are now, except over a vastly broader area. Russian soldiers would regularly return to the Motherland in “200’ convoys.
3) After waiting for a bit for the media frenzy to die down and the West to get distracted by some other big news, continue support for insurgency, with more regular Russian troops and military equipment, beat back Kyiv’s advance, move in a long-prepared peace-keeping force (which seems to have been part of the original plan). Attempt to gain control of most of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.
Effect: Kyiv will probably be forced to accept a ceasefire on terms better for Russia and the insurgents. Ukraine will lose control of most of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, which will merge and turn into a quasi-statelet on the lines of Transdniestria or Abkhazia. A long-term “frozen conflict” will be up and running, causing headaches for Kyiv and acting as a useful lever of influence for Russia.
Why he’d do it: This would be the repeat of a tried-and-tested plan for the Kremlin, which has worked well for the Russians in Moldova and Georgia. Ukraine will be weakened over the long-term, Crimea will be safe, and eventually it will be back to business as usual with the West. It would be nothing but a win for the Kremlin, and Putin personally. To deal with the immediate problem of the airliner atrocity, Russia will try to obfuscate the investigation into the airliner atrocity in every way it can, float absurd conspiracy theories, and lay a smokescreen so thick that the shooting down of MH17 becomes a favorite topic of conspiracy theorists for decades to come.
Why he wouldn’t: There’s no certainty the media frenzy will die down, as more and more evidence of direct Russian involvement in the shooting down of MH17 comes to light. While there’s no danger of Putin himself being sent to The Hague, captured insurgents or Russians being put on trial in the International Court would not look good for Russia, and by extension, Putin himself, and he doesn’t want anything to undermine his support at home.
Option 3 is probably the one Putin would go for. That’s why it’s absolutely vital for the West to keep up the pressure on Russia, push for a proper investigation into the shooting down of MH17, with the trial (even in absentia) of those responsible for firing the missile, and realistic threats of painful sanctions if the Russians don’t cooperate – at the very least the Mistral helicopter carrier deal with France should be scrapped. Determined Western pressure could force Putin to take option 1, which would be the best outcome for Ukraine and the rest of the world, and, ultimately, the best for Russia.
Putin is on the hook now. The West must not allow him to wriggle off it.