The Downed Airliner, Putin and History

When the façade of an authoritarian regime begins to be exposed to the harsh glare of truth, it usually crumbles at some point.
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On September 1, 1983, I was spending the night in an outpost of Fijian UN peacekeepers in Southern Lebanon when I tuned in my shortwave radio to the BBC. For the first time in days, the lead item had nothing to do with the Lebanese civil war and the predicament of the U.S. Marines protecting Beirut's airport, which was to be my destination the next day. Instead, the news was of the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 with nearly 300 passengers on board. The Kremlin initially denied responsibility, but soon switched its tune, claiming the flight was on a spying mission once it was impossible to keep lying about who did the shooting.

Today's headlines about the downing of the Malaysian airliner with nearly 300 people on board over the Donetsk region feels like, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again. Once again, a Mideast crisis has been eclipsed by the downing of a passenger jet with all signs pointing to the pro-Russian separatists or Russian forces on the Russian-Ukrainian border as the culprits -- although of course the Russians are blaming the Ukrainians. And, more importantly, once again a Russian leader -- this time, Vladimir Putin -- is likely to discover that this latest act of callous brutality will in the long run undermine his power at home and whatever remains of his standing abroad.

The difference between now and then: despite the efforts of the separatists at the crash site to keep Ukrainian officials from viewing the debris and any incriminating evidence, the true story of what happened is likely to emerge a lot faster than in 1983. Earlier social media posts by the separatists indicated they had access to the kind of missile that could have brought down the airliner, and in fact they had initially claimed they had downed a plane carrying Ukrainian troops -- before they hastily deleted those posts when news broke about the Malaysian plane. In the digital age, deleting posts doesn't make them go away.

But the key similarity is that Putin, like the Soviet regime he grew up under and served as a KGB officer, doesn't understand that what he views as clever behavior -- in his case, arming the separatists while insisting he's doing nothing of the sort -- is doomed to fail. The Soviet regime believed it could keep restive Eastern Europeans in place indefinitely by repeatedly using, or getting their local proxies, to suppress popular anti-communist movements, whether in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Poland in 1981. By 1989, everything began to unravel.

The other similarity is something that was immediately apparent when Putin first took over the presidency in 2000. That was the year of the explosion on the Kursk, the Russian submarine that sank with 118 seamen on board. The new Russian president refused all offers of foreign help and stayed on holiday for five days as rescue efforts failed; with the whole country riveted by scenes of grieving family members, Putin had to be shamed into finally meeting them. His behavior left no doubt that this was a leader who was steeped in the Kremlin's traditional disregard for the suffering of its subjects, something that would be demonstrated again and again during hostage situations and other crises.

What did Putin conclude from the Kursk experience? Primarily, that he had to crack down hard on the still relatively freewheeling media that he inherited from his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. He did so, and the result is that most of the Russian media now obediently pumps up his ratings, especially when he defies the international community by seizing Crimea and orchestrating the campaign to undermine Ukraine's new government, while denying Russia's involvement every step of the way.

The sad part is that Putin does not know any other way to operate. He almost certainly believes he is restoring Russia's prestige in the world, when in fact his main motivation is fear. He is afraid of allowing the new Ukrainian government, the product of a popular uprising against a corrupt post-communist regime, to succeed, since that could inspire his countrymen to attempt something similar.

Despite Putin's ostensible popularity, at least some Russians recognize that he is playing an old game governed by old rules. Valeria Novodvorskaya, an eloquent old-fashioned Russian dissident who died on July 12, summed up what more and more of her countrymen are beginning to understand. Speaking to an Estonian audience in 2010, she apologized to the Balts and others in the region for Soviet behavior in the past and denounced Russia's current leadership. According to the summary of her talk, she declared: "Despite all of its national resources Russia has remained poor and uneducated. Suffering from its imperial complexes, Russia uses its limited economic resources only for cultivating hate and revenge."

Like many previous dissidents, Novodvorskaya also criticized the West for its weak response to Russia's aggressive policies. Too often, Western governments have chosen to ignore such warnings. But Western European governments, who have been reluctant to implement strong sanctions against the Kremlin, are now likely to come under renewed pressure to take a tougher stance. At the very least, the hollowness of Putin's rhetoric about seeking a peaceful resolution of the crisis will be all too visible.

When the façade of an authoritarian regime begins to be exposed to the harsh glare of truth, it usually crumbles at some point. That doesn't necessarily happen immediately or even fast. But both the world at large and the Russians themselves will soon realize that the emperor in the Kremlin has no clothes. Future historians are likely to look at the downing of Malaysian Flight 17 as a pivotal moment in that process.

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