After the Crash: Vladimir Putin and the Malaysian Airlines Tragedy


Geography, motive, communications intercepts, and all manner of circumstantial evidence suggest that the likeliest suspect in the horrific deaths of two hundred and ninety-eight people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was the curiously well-armed and well-coördinated military outfit loyal to Moscow in eastern Ukraine. Various government and intelligence officials in Kiev say that they have evidence, including a series of damning tapped conversations among pro-Russian forces, that the separatists shot down the plane, which crashed near Grabovo, a coal-mining town in the Donetsk region.

Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, said, “We are calling this not an incident, not a catastrophe, but a terrorist act.” U.S. intelligence officials have told the Times and other media outlets that whoever was behind the destruction of the airliner, which was flying at more than thirty thousand feet, bound to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, likely fired a sophisticated Russian-made surface-to-air missile that was either snatched from the Ukrainian Army or supplied by the Russians.

But let’s stop here and register the proper cautions and caveats: There has been no investigation, no conclusive proof. (And there won’t necessarily be a proper and convincing investigation, either, considering the deliberately chaotic and militarized state of eastern Ukraine these days, and Russia’s clear interests.) We shouldn’t pretend to know for certain what we don’t.

What’s far more certain is that Vladimir Putin, acting out of resentment and fury toward the West and the leaders in Kiev, has fanned a kind of prolonged political frenzy, both in Russia and among his confederates in Ukraine, that serves his immediate political needs but that he can no longer easily calibrate and control. Putin’s defiant annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine inflated his popularity at home. Despite a flaccid economy, his approval rating approaches levels rarely seen beyond North Korea. But the tactically clever and deeply cynical maneuvers of propaganda and military improvisation that have taken him this far, one of his former advisers told me in Moscow earlier this month, are bound to risk unanticipated disasters. Western economic and political sanctions may be the least of it.

The former adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, is one of the most enigmatic political actors in Moscow. Born in Odessa, he was arrested in 1982, when he was thirty-one, for illegally distributing dissident literature. He marred his reputation in dissident circles, however, when he confessed to his “crimes” and spared himself a long term in the gulag at hard labor. Instead, he was sentenced to internal exile for a couple of years in the northern provinces, where he worked as a painter and stoker.

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The New Yorker

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