The immediacy and horror of a tragedy like the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 tends to mean the question of how something like this should come to happen dominates the news. Who were the victims? Who were the perpetrators? What are the immediate policy responses? But, as awful an incident as this clearly is, the downing of the flight is just an episode in the larger Ukrainian conflict.

Incidents like this have happened before, such as Iran Air Flight 655 which was shot down on July 3, 1988 by a U.S. Navy captain in command of an Aegis-class cruiser called the Vincennes. Despite being the cause of screaming headlines and great diplomatic consternation, the incident was resolved quietly a decade later when damages were paid to Iran. Few remember the incident today, and certainly not in the bright colors as the original incident was reported. Indeed, what looks like a decisive turning point in a domestic or international conflict can often turn out to be illusory.

In a previous Hippo Reads curation I argued that polling within Eastern Ukraine shows the limits of Russian might, and this analysis still strongly holds. Separatists roving the streets in Ukraine are a problem for the Ukrainian government. If Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine then the situation would be quickly reversed: the Russian military would be faced with a Ukrainian nationalist insurgency which would be far worse for Putin strategically. Ukraine is still an economic basket case that would be little reward for taking on responsibility directly for the region. Far from pushing his position in Ukraine further, as many feared when Yanukovych was felled, Julia Ioffe argues in The New Republic that Putin has been ‘backed into a corner’.

Putin doesn’t want to directly intervene and would prefer a status quo of permanent instability. The only prospect that might provoke direct Russian intervention is the unlikely event of complete Ukraine victory over the separatist forces. However, due to a lack of state capacity emanating from Kiev to its outer regions, and the low barrier to continued separatist agitation, Russian troops on the border are more of a grim warning to Kiev than a likely threat to further annex its territory.

So what is Putin’s strategy in Ukraine? How does this end? The first important note to acknowledge is, as George Friedman points out in Stratfor, “Events in Ukraine this year, by contrast, have proved devastating to Putin.” Russian leaders have often used foreign policy to distract from domestic disappointments. Plehve, Nicolas II’s ruthless Minister of the Interior, urged the Tsar towards a “short, victorious war” against Japan that proved to be a strategic disaster. Khrushchev was shunted aside because of “harebrained schemes” and foreign adventurism that his Politburo thought reckless. However, Putin has had rather more luck in this department. The Second Chechen War solidified Prime Minister Putin from being the latest in a litany of Yeltsin placemen in that position (his predecessors, Stepashin, Primakov, and Kiriyenko aren’t exactly household names to anyone outside Russia) to being an immediately popular President. Putin’s opposition to the Iraq war and other attempts to frustrate American designs also served to burnish his popularity as he rebuilt the Russian state on the foundations of a conservative nationalism that went with the grain of Russian populist appeals since Stalin.

But this time might be different. NATO expansion has left a historic anti-Russian alliance near the Russian border so Russia is almost surrounded. Pro-Western governments in Kiev and Tblisi undermine Russian appeals to its own “sphere of influence.” Putin’s strategy has been to render both countries so unstable that NATO doesn’t dare expand up to the Russian border. A Baylor political scientist, Serhiy Kudelia, asks in this Washington Post opinion piece if Eastern Ukraine will turn into Northern Ireland: a state ungovernable by either titular nationality because of permanent civil strife. If figures show that 30% of the Donbass region favor separatism, there is unlikely to be a satisfactory military solution, even if Russian outside provocation slowly dampens down. This permanent instability without permanent cost is exactly what Putin wants. But, in the meantime, the Russian military has to be seen as a threat to too earnest a Ukrainian attempt to settle matters on her own, without becoming embroiled in direct separatist actions, like with the shooting of the Malaysian flight.

As Pavel Kazarin, a Moscow analyst, is quoted and further analyzed in this The Interpreter piece:

“In Russia,” people like to think that “Ukraine is in the midst of a civil war,” [Kazarin] says. But “Ukraine is certain that it is fighting with an intervention. In point of fact, the truth is somewhere in between. For a fire one needs a heat source and something combustible, and it isn’t important that the match was produced somewhere else. What is important is that the combustible is local.”

According to Kazarin, “one thing is clear” whatever the politicians, diplomats and generals do. “There will not be any more peace. All have gone to war. The war is giving birth to the myth of the victors and the myth of the vanquished.” That is something that potential victors regardless of which myth they hold “must not forget.”

Sanctions have weakened Putin. He can’t afford to attract the world’s attention while he puts in place a permanently ungovernable enclave in Ukraine like Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. Russian propaganda can maintain that Ukrainians and ‘fascists’ were responsible for the downing of the flight,but the Russian economy faces profound challenges that show Putin’s biggest threats might yet be domestic. While Putin has skillfully sidelined the opposition as bourgeois libertines unmoored from traditional Russian mores, the outpouring of ‘creatives’ and capital from Russia, threats to the Kremlin’s hold on the country remain. The Medvedev plan to diversify the Russian economy away from energy emerged stillborn, Russian wages remain stubbornly flat, and the old adage that “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure” remains a real possibility for the man who has loomed over Russian politics for so long.

Malaysian Flight 17 is a humanitarian tragedy. The reports of the extraordinary people lost underline that. The sanctions that followed might be a small contribution to ominous Russian challenges that Putin will be hard-pressed to navigate. Much of the Ukrainian-Russian drama remains to be played out.

Further Reading:

  • Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War”, in American Political Science Review, by Fearon and Laitin. The most influential article on the causes of civil war. The authors argue that civil war is not stoked by irrational passions of adherence to religion or ethnic loyalties, but is instead the product of predictable structural factors that favor insurgencies in light of state weakness.
  • Who Intervenes?”, by Carment, James, and Taydas. David Carment and Patrick James have long been at the forefront of research into ethnic conflict. Here, alongside Zeynep Taydas, the authors argue that peace is often best pursued by following a logic of a balance of power between ethnic groups, reducing violence like in, for instance, Tito’s Yugoslavia. Redistribution too heavily towards one ethnic group can trigger grievances that sets off great violence.
  • “The Most Dangerous Man in Ukraine is an Obsessive War Reenactor Playing Now with Real Weapons,” in The New Republic. Oleg Kashin looks at Igor Strelkov,the leader of the pro-Russian insurgents in Ukraine. Catapulted to prominence, Strelkov has long ‘played war’ and now has gone from Live Action Role-Player to real war leader…

Image credit: Riot police via flickr