Don't push Putin into a corner

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, on July 7, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, on July 7, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP 

The worldwide condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin for his alleged support of Ukrainian rebels widely believed to be responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airline flight MH17 last Thursday may be entirely justified. But is it wise?

In recent days an increasing number of commentators have argued that it is not.

In the wake of the disaster, which claimed the lives of all 298 passengers and crew of the doomed aircraft, world leaders have lined up to condemn the Ukrainian rebels and demand that Russia call them to account. US president Barack Obama’s harsh language in particular has been widely reported.

Less well known, perhaps, are the comments of Netherlands prime minister Mark Rutte, whose citizens made up the bulk of the victims of the disaster: “He (Mr Putin) must take responsibility vis-à-vis the rebels and show the Netherlands and the world that he is doing what is expected of him.”

Similarly blunt language came from Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, while British Prime Minister David Cameron called on Europe to impose “hard-hitting sanctions”, comparing “Russian aggression” in the Ukraine to that of Nazi Germany.

But while the emotive speeches are completely understandable, politicians also need to deal with reality, and that means calculating consequences.

Dr Andrew C. Kuchins, director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argues in a CNN commentary that there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that sanctions will change Russian behaviour.

Instead, they will only encourage Mr Putin and fellow Russians to dig in their heels. His preferred response? “There is no other solution but urgent diplomacy to de-escalate and to get international peacekeepers to the border region as quickly as possible”.

Professor Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics at Murdoch University, has a similar take. Writing in The Conversation, a website which carries analysis by academics and researchers in Australia and United Kingdom, he makes the point that “it is vital that cool heads prevail, especially among those with the capacity to make consequential decisions”.

“We have to realise,” he continues, that “there are no optimal or obvious responses” and that “the challenge is to make responses proportional and – even more importantly – effective”.

Writing in the Mail Online, historian and specialist in post-communist countries Mark Almond put it this way: “the West needs to avoid pushing Russia into a corner”.

The problem, he explains, is that within Russia Mr Putin has styled himself as the people’s defender, restoring national pride. In order to get something positive from the disaster, the West should therefore “de-couple patriotic Russians from their president. Pushing him and them together with their backs to the wall is a recipe for catastrophe”.

Fine words. But what, if anything, can be done?

Perhaps Kuala Lumpur’s success in convincing the rebels to hand over the ill-fated aircraft’s black boxes to a Malaysian team in Donetsk shows the way forward. Writing on his facebook page, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Najib commented that working quietly ensured a better outcome, even though it meant he was unable to publicly lend a “greater voice to the anger and grief that the Malaysian people feel”. Reports say that there were 43 Malaysian passengers on MH17.

British journalist and former public relations adviser to the Russian government, Mr Angus Roxburgh takes the matter further, asking readers of his commentary for The Guardian newspaper to look at things from Mr Putin’s point of view. “Putin”, he says, “must be looking, desperately, for a way to save face”.

In return for Mr Putin disowning the Ukrainian rebels, the West could express support for constitutional talks between Kiev and Moscow on the future of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority.

Mr Putin has often spoken of the need for Ukraine to adopt a federal system of government that would guarantee the language and civil rights of Russian speaking Ukrainians. Why not take him at his word?

Mr Roxburgh suggests that the Russian president may be losing patience with the rebels anyway. “Back in May, he asked them to postpone their referendum on independence, and when they went ahead with it he declined to recognise its results”.

Fortunately, there is evidence that at least some Western leaders are thinking along these lines. Mr Roxburgh points out that, despite his tough language, Mr Cameron has managed to combine threats of further sanctions with a recognition that “there must be protection for Russian-speaking minorities” in Ukraine.