Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

Ukraine blows up in Russia's face

Russia will face years of isolation for President Vladimir Putin's mishandling of the Flight MH17 disaster

THE shrewd former Russian diplomat Alexander Baunov wrote over the weekend that "it is one thing to be the modest helper of some rebels, and quite another thing to help insurgents who have perpetrated one of the biggest terrorist attacks in the history of aviation", as evidence mounted that Russian-supported rebels using missiles supplied by Moscow were responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines' Flight MH17.

Mr Baunov was trying to warn his Russian political masters that the slaughter of civilian passengers amounts to a complete game-changer, and should offer Russia an opportunity to stop sponsoring men of violence who are now seen as mass murderers.

But there is no indication that Russian President Vladimir Putin has the slightest intention of heeding such warnings.

For, instead of seeking to extricate his country from the Ukraine disaster, Mr Putin is digging himself deeper into the morass. The stage is therefore set for a far bigger confrontation between Russia and the West. And the people who will suffer most will be the Russians themselves.

Although Russia's direct culpability in the destruction of Flight MH17 has not been proven, Russia's moral responsibility for the tragedy is already beyond doubt.

The issue is not so much who supplied the missile which brought down the MH17 plane - although that, too, was of Russian manufacture - but, rather, the strategy which the Russian military pursued in Ukraine, and which was almost guaranteed to result in such a disaster.

Disaster waiting to happen

FROM the start of the Ukraine crisis earlier this year, the fundamental objective of Mr Putin and his military commanders was to deprive the Ukrainian government of any ability to fight ethnic Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country. And a key element in this was to hand over Russian-made air defence systems to the rebels, empowering them to shoot down Ukrainian aircraft.

The strategy made sense, at least in narrow military terms: If Ukraine lost its ability to control its own airspace, it also lost an opportunity to transfer troops from other parts of the country to fight the rebels and that, in turn, meant that the civil war which the rebels unleashed inside Ukraine could continue for much longer, to Russia's advantage.

But what this strategy also meant is that civilian aircraft was threatened from the start; this was a disaster waiting to happen, since it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the rebels would accidentally hit at civilian aircraft in what is one of Europe's most crowded airspaces. More importantly, as Ukrainian military aircraft got better at ducking the shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missiles which the rebels initially used to great effect, Russia was faced with the choice of either supplying the separatists with even more sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, or accepting the fact that the rebels would lose their edge against Ukrainian government forces.

Mr Putin - whose personal consent was needed for such a momentous decision - chose the escalation option, by supplying the rebels with Buk system missiles which can hit jets at far higher altitudes. The destruction of the Malaysia Airlines plane was undoubtedly an error, but one which was possible only because Russia acted irresponsibly in transferring such sophisticated equipment to what are, to all intents and purposes, bands of hooligans.

In the weeks to come, analysts are bound to ask why, given the intensifying level of violence, civilian aircraft from many nations were not warned about the dangers inherent in overflying through Ukraine's airspace. The simple answer is that Western intelligence services received fragmentary information only late last month that the Buk missile system may be in the hands of rebels. And even then, security analysts assumed that such systems would remain under Russian government control, and so would not pose a threat to civil aviation: After all, airliners have always flown over Afghanistan, notwithstanding that country's high level of internal violence.

Too soft on Russia

IF THE West can be held accountable for something in this sad affair, it is the fact that, paradoxically, it was too soft on Russia. General Philip Breedlove, the overall commander of all the troops of the US-led Nato alliance in Europe, repeatedly raised the alarm about what he termed the "astonishingly sophisticated" nature of Russia's weapon transfers to rebels in Ukraine. But Western governments preferred not to corner Russia too much on this point.

The moral of this episode is that trying to be "soft" on a looming security crisis could be just as dangerous or carry just as bloody consequences as being too aggressive in handling a security threat. The West should have raised the alarm about Russia's deeds much earlier, and much more publicly.

Mr Putin still retains plenty of viable options to extricate himself and his country from the current disaster. He can promise to assist in the immediate creation of an international committee of inquiry into the carnage, and grant the committee instant access to the airliner's crash site through Russian soil. He can also accept the stationing of international observers on Russia's borders with Ukraine, in order to prevent the further transfer of heavy weapons to the rebels.

Neither of these concessions is as costly to Russia as currently assumed. A committee of inquiry raises the risk of unearthing the real truth about the unsavoury connections between the Russian military and ethnic Russian separatists in Ukraine.

But the risks are manageable, partly because pro-Russian rebels most probably have already destroyed much of the incriminating evidence at the airliner's crash site, and partly because the Buk missile system involved in the Malaysian jet's destruction is manufactured in one single Russian factory and operated by both the Ukrainian and Russian military.

The "smoking gun", that of tracing the particular missile which hit the airliner to Russian arsenals is, therefore, likely never to be found, giving Moscow plenty of wiggle room.

And curtailing arms deliveries to the rebels is also of low risk, since ethnic Russian separatists already have all the weapons they are ever likely to need. So, offering such concessions should be a no-brainer for any Russian leader.

The snag for Mr Putin is that all these options would entail him accepting that, at best, Russia would be able to obtain an autonomy for Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine; the possibility of carving up Ukraine in order to prevent the country from slipping into a Western sphere of influence would be gone, and probably for good, since the Ukrainian authorities would then be able to re-establish their control in the eastern parts of their country. And that, Mr Putin is not prepared to contemplate, for it would dent his carefully nurtured domestic image as Russia's invincible leader.

Conspiracy theories abound

WHAT Mr Putin is banking on instead is the ability of his propaganda machinery to sow doubts about the circumstances surrounding last week's carnage. State-controlled Russian media is now circulating all sorts of lurid conspiracy theories, including the latest and most obscene one which alleges that the Malaysia Airlines plane was full of dead people before it took off, and was blown up above Ukraine by Western intelligence agencies in order to embarrass Russia.

Further fuelling the rumour mill, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov released over the weekend a list of 10 "questions Ukraine must answer" about the tragedy; all were designed to suggest that the Malaysian plane was a victim of some dastardly foreign plot.

Yet it is unlikely that the strategy to sit out the crisis would work to Russia's advantage. Russia's cack-handed refusal to even talk to Australia's Foreign Minister, whose country lost scores of citizens in this disaster, is astonishing, even to seasoned diplomats around the world.

And Russia's determination to do absolutely nothing as the rebels it supports and pays for continue to rummage through the debris of the downed aircraft without according the dead even a modicum of dignity is a spectacular own goal for Russia's international reputation. The economic sanctions which the West would impose on Russia may remain feeble. But the outrage at the current turn of events will ensure that these sanctions will be almost impossible to lift, as long as Mr Putin remains in power.

Governments and families of the bereaved will seek compensation, arrest warrants will be issued against individual Russian military commanders, the litigation will go on for years, and Russia will end up paying through the nose in lost trade and investment opportunities, but also in various legal battles.

Mr Putin may be a good tactician. But in consigning Russia to years of isolation, he also reveals himself as a poor strategist.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com