Blowback’s a Bitch: MH17 and the East Ukraine Campaign’s Long-Term Costs for Russia
Policymakers, especially policymakers who have never seen action, are often seduced by covert operations. They see them as the perfect policy instrument: cheap, deniable, effective. Yes, there can be tremendously effective covert or at least non-conventional operations and campaigns, but just as all intelligence operations must come to terms with the fundamental truth that nothing is guaranteed to stay secret for ever, so too these sneaky campaigns can very easily either fail or, even more likely, have unexpected consequences that may overshadow the intended outcome. After all, while Al-Qaeda and the rise of Osama Bin Laden cannot entirely be charted back to the US campaign to support Islamist rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan–had the social, political and intellectual climate not been ready for the message of jihad then they would have remained on the fringes–nonetheless there is a strong connection.
Courtesy of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Putin is now coming to terms with the blowback from his Ukrainian adventure, a hybrid non-linear political-military campaign fought largely through local proxies, and this is something that will dog him for as long as he is in power. I plan to look at these in more detail at a later date, but in summary, the consequences are:
1. You don’t have control over events on the ground but (rightly) get blamed when bad stuff happens. The MH17 shootdown is generating an unprecedented level of anger.Even if ultimately it is unable to muster the unity, determination and moral courage to act resolutely–although I hope they do–I do not believe the West will look at Putin the same way again. Furthermore, the pliant choir of “useful idiots” arguing the Russian case, whether out of self-interest or because of a naive and perverse disillusion with their own society, will find their lives harder and their audiences less tolerant.
2. You inject yourself into the negotiations, but can’t deliver on a deal. At this stage, Kyiv will be looking for more from Moscow than “we won’t send any more people or weapons in to join the fight” but it is questionable whether the Russians can do more than extract those elements of the rebellion which really are direct covert operatives and try to persuade the rest. Given that Moscow doesn’t really care about the east Ukrainians but is instead using them to put pressure on Kyiv, it is unlikely to put a great premium on looking after them and their interests–but it must then sell them the consequent peace terms.
3. You create chaos on your border. Even if Kyiv is able to win a military victory or else is willing and able to arrange some kind of peace deal (which is all the harder now), eastern Ukraine will be suffering from the effects of this nasty conflict for years to come. Bad blood between communities, civilians angry at either the separatists or government after being caught in the crossfire, a hemorrhage of weapons which will arm gangsters, terrorists and random lunatics for years to come…Considering the close ethnic and economic connections across the border, that will inevitably have an impact on Russia.
4. You disappoint people you previously counted as fervent supporters. It’s not just Strelkov who expressed disappointment at Russia’s stance. There are already concerns within the ultra-nationalist wing in Russia, people who previously saw Putin as the ideal ruler, not least given his recent shift towards a messianic Russian exceptionalism and a commitment to asserting Russia’s rights to protect Russians abroad. This is very much a fringe movement, and poses no serious threat to Putin, but it does mean that he no longer can rely on their active support.
5. You undermine your persona as the infallible tsar. Of course the Russian media will spin whatever decision he chooses to make, but we shouldn’t presume that the Russian population are wholly clueless. If he has to accept the crushing of the insurrection and, even more alarming, a further Ukrainian drift towards Europe without having been given some grounds to claim “Mission Accomplished,” then he will look bad. (To that end, if the aim is an early end to hostilities, it would make sense for Kyiv to ponder what face-saving package it can give that it is willing to give: simply a nicely package assertion of things already said, such as the protection of Russia’s status as a state language; as well as what is a practical inevitability, such as ruling out NATO membership for at least 8 years, might be enough.)
6. You look weak before your other neighbours, undermining claims to regional hegemony. Just as the 2008 Georgian War was as much–if not mainly–about asserting Moscow’s will and capacity to punish those Near Abroad states challenging its regional hegemony, a perceived failure in Ukraine cannot but embolden those other nations. Let’s face it, Moscow has in the main relatively little positive soft power: no one especially likes Russia or looks up to it as a model. Instead, there are some countries who regard it as either too useful or too dangerous to flout. That pragmatic arithmetic may shift.
7. You are held accountable for your actions (maybe). We’ll have to see quite how robust the further Western response will be. The current sanctions regime and diplomatic chill is a little irksome but entirely bearable, but if we start seeing more concrete measures, whether the cancellation of contracts (can Paris really still deliver modern assault carriers to Russia with good conscience?), expanded travel bans or even sectoral sanctions, then this will hit Russia and Russians. Short-term bravado will give way to longer-term concerns in this case. Either way, those voices in the West who warned that Putin’s Russia was that dangerous thing, a compound of the aggressive and erratic, have been proven right, and NATO now looks more relevant than at any time since not even 1991, but arguably since Gorbachev’s accession to power.
One way or the other, while the concept of non-linear war is still entirely valid and will be a crucial factor in 21st century statecraft, in this case it has gone very wrong. Bad luck for Moscow, to a degree, but handing powerful weapons to undertrained, undisciplined and gung-ho rebels is in many ways an invitation to such bad luck. And ultimately Putin has no one to blame but himself (although I’m sure he’ll find someone.)
This article was originally posted in In Moscow’s Shadows.