For the last few months the government of the Russian Federation has been on the offensive on multiple fronts. In cyberspace, in Syria and Iraq, Russian government agents have been active against Western interests. Internationally, through RT and other mouthpieces, official or not, Moscow has created a slick propaganda machine to set out a case against Western policies. Domestically in Russia, of course the free media has finally ceased to exist. Increasingly, Human Rights have been crushed and what passes for Russian political culture is wrapped in a brutal authoritarianism whose strident nationalism strongly resembles those of the Fascist dictatorships of the 1930s.
As this blog has warned repeatedly, Russia has become an enemy power.
The image of Vladimir Putin has hitherto been one of an ice cold, intelligent, strategist seeking to probe and develop weaknesses in the Western system- a system that he has maintained an unrelenting hatred for.
Yet as the Ukrainian crisis has unfolded, many individuals, including- most famously- Angela Merkel, have remarked that Putin seems to believe in a vision of reality that is increasingly disconnected from the truth. His increasingly rambling statements might still be said to show a calculating chess-playing mind, for how else could we explain the simple, bare faced lies that he casually drops into his comments on the world scene, especially concerning the Ukrainian crisis?
Yet if we step back a little, what shocks us now is not the intelligence or calculation that Putin demonstrates, but his banal mediocrity. His vision of the world is still rooted in a backward looking nostalgia for the failed Soviet state. He offers only an updated version of the old brutality. A chess player might adopt a strategy that could create feints, offer sacrifices for bigger gains, but Putin does not do that- he simply uses the old uncompromising Soviet steam roller. As a result, even in countries such as Ukraine, where the image of Russia, even post the overthrow of Yanukovych, was still positive, Russia's image has collapsed. Indeed, across the planet, Russian influence is in meltdown.
All that was before, of course, the horrific events concerning the downing of flight MH17.
Now Russia stands accused of complicity in a truly vile crime. The immediate evidence is quite clear- the attack was recorded by a variety of different sources, and all of those sources point unrelentingly to one weapons system, one launch point, one crew. A crew ostensibly fighting to separate the Donbass from the rest of Ukraine, but in fact comprising Russian army and special forces working to the command of the Kremlin. The phone calls from the local commanders to their Russian commanders inside Russia itself, and the boastful tweets-subsequently deleted- that they put out, show without question who fired the missile that killed nearly three hundred innocent people.
I have little doubt that those who launched the missile probably did not intend to down a civilian airliner, but that is not really the point. Moscow gave these weapons to the frankly low grade forces they have created in the Donbas without thought for the consequences. That those consequences have proven to be so dreadful simply underlines the brutal and arrogant stupidity that has become the hallmark of Putin's policy. This is not merely a crime, it is a blunder.
Meanwhile on the ground these same Russian forces have disrupted the gathering of evidence and restricted access to the crash site, while all the time attempting to steal or destroy evidence. This botched cover-up can achieve very little, except increase the agony of those left bereaved. However it also multiplies the global anger at the initial crime. If it is true that such theft has included the looting of the bodies, as has been alleged, then revulsion will turn to something much, much harder. As it is the conversations between Putin and the Dutch Prime Minister, for example, far from calming the situation, have left the West even more furious. Dumb insolence is a pretty stupid tactic in the playground, but on the global stage and in such crisis, it is close to political and economic suicide.
Vladimir Putin is a disastrous leader. He is leading Russia straight off a cliff. Unless he can make an intelligent play in the course of the next week or so, then the scale of punishment that will be exacted Russia will include total isolation and drastic sanctions which will be designed to remove Russian influence as quickly and completely as possible. David Cameron has already indicated that the MH17 catastrophe will lead to a discontinuity in Russian relations with the wider world- and as the EU considers its next moves, even those countries with most to lose- France- or who are most penetrated by Russia- Italy, some parts of Germany- are being dragged along by the determination that unless Russia changes course, then a second cold war is already upon us.
That new cold war is already being fought in cyberspace and by proxy in Iraq and Syria as well as, of course, in Ukraine. The West should recognize this and offer sufficient military assistance to allow Ukraine to first to defeat the so-called separatists and then aid the rebuilding of an open and prosperous Ukraine.
We will not get back the lives of the passengers and crew of MH17, or indeed those killed in Ukraine as the result of Vladimir Putin's brutality, but we can make sure that justice is done. The leaders of the so-called separatists must receive indictments and face trial, either in Ukraine or in the Hague. As for Russia, Putin has chosen a brutal and incompetent path. His personal image is trashed beyond repair. Putin is a tyrant, and such men eventually receive judgement too. His despicable lies and brutality have brought dishonour and shame to his nation. Although in such an oppressed environment it is difficult to truly know if he is popular or not, but the West should spare no effort on relaying the truth to the Russian people and encouraging a new civil society to grow, even while the neo-fascist Putinist chrysalis still encases the country.
One day Russia might be free. but Russian freedom is a subject for another, different blog.