He’s been victimized – victimized by the law of unanticipated consequences. Thinking himself in total control – as opposed to only partial control – Putin recently ramped up Russia’s investment in destabilizing Ukraine. He increased the number of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border to rather a massive 13,000, and he put new, more formidable military hardware into the hands of Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists. The idea of course was to manage the situation from Moscow, while unsettling the government in Kiev.
But in the second decade of the 21st century best laid plans get upended – even plans made by people in positions of power. Within Russia Putin has got his way. Through a wily combination of oppression and suppression, his political opposition has been more or less stifled. Moreover without Russia he has also been riding high. Ever since Obama made Putin his partner in striking that Syrian chemical weapons deal, Putin has strode the world like a bit of a colossus, throwing his weight around so successfully that he calculated he could seize Crimea without firing a shot. And so he did.
What he has not always been able to accomplish, however, is to control the forces that he himself has unleashed. And so it is in Eastern Ukraine, where he has not been able always to contain pro-Russian separatists – even though it is he, of course, who since the beginning has been their enabler. Even this particular leader is not, in other words, in complete command of his followers. Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists owe their existence to Putin, but not necessarily their allegiance.
It is impossible to know at this moment who exactly is to blame for the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines flight number 17. What we do know is that it was shot out of the sky by a Russian made surface-to-air missile. What we do know is that some 298 people are dead as a result. And what we do know is that while Vladimir Putin might not be directly responsible, he is without doubt indirectly responsible.
Putin should have known that he cannot always count on controlling even his own people. But he did not – and so he has painted himself into a corner. He has at this moment only two choices. Either he endures an embarrassment and takes a step back. Or he ratchets up his risk by destabilizing Europe still further.