Skip to main content

Vladimir Putin's big blunder

By Daniel Treisman
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 sits in a field at the crash site in Hrabove, Ukraine, on Tuesday, September 9. The Boeing 777 is believed to have been shot down July 17 in an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels. Debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 sits in a field at the crash site in Hrabove, Ukraine, on Tuesday, September 9. The Boeing 777 is believed to have been shot down July 17 in an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels.
HIDE CAPTION
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
Malaysia Airlines jet crashes in Ukraine
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Daniel Treisman: Putin took a big risk when he annexed Crimea, backed Ukraine separatists
  • He says the Russian President made himself hostage to brutish action of separatists
  • Now Putin will either have to side with West or reject international consensus
  • Treisman: Putin could make his regime a pariah or could lose support internally

Editor's note: Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of "The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev."

(CNN) -- The tragic fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, believed shot down by a missile in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board, has cast a new light on the series of gambles Russian President Vladimir Putin embarked on in late February.

At that time, Putin sent military intelligence troops in unmarked uniforms to take control of the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Three weeks later, Russia annexed the region.

As Russian-speaking Ukrainians farther north in Donetsk and Luhansk stormed administrative buildings, demanding independence from Kiev, Russian intelligence officers started slipping across the border to help organize the militias. In subsequent months, Moscow supplied the separatist guerrillas with artillery, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons.

Daniel Treisman
Daniel Treisman

Putin's goal appeared to be to pressure Ukraine's leaders to negotiate with the Russia-backed rebels and offer constitutional autonomy to the country's eastern regions. Intimidated by the superiority of the Russian army, Kiev -- it seemed -- would have to buckle under.

This strategy was failing even before the Malaysia Airlines tragedy. Soon after his election last May, Ukraine's new President, Petro Poroshenko, launched a determined military campaign to crush the separatist guerrillas. Although he might have been willing to negotiate with Putin, he showed no inclination to talk to the swashbuckling Russian desperadoes on the ground.

The success Poroshenko's operation was having explains why recently Moscow reportedly supplied its proxies with at least one radar-guided Buk missile system that could destroy Ukrainian military planes flying at high altitudes. Such missiles also had the range to hit the commercial airliners that continued to cross the conflict zone.

Is there blood on Putin's hands?
Feinstein to Putin: 'Man up'

While the facts about who shot down Flight MH-17 can only be settled by a full investigation, Ukraine's government has said it has "compelling evidence" that a Russian-supplied battery, manned by Russian operatives, fired the missile.

'Moment of truth' for Putin

Suddenly, the risks inherent in Putin's gamble are glaringly obvious. By supplying weapons to the rebel militias, with their strange mix of intelligence agents, local thugs and trigger-happy Russian volunteers, Putin made himself a hostage to their brutish blundering. On Saturday, some of these "freedom fighters," apparently drunk, were said to be manhandling the corpses, while barring OSCE observers from the crash site.

All must now await the results of the international investigation. If it concludes that the plane was shot down by rebels using a Russian-supplied missile -- or, worse still, by Russians themselves -- the pressure on Putin will become intense. The West, led by President Barack Obama, will demand that he cut off support to the rebels once and for all and seal the border.

If Putin does not do so, tougher economic penalties are almost certain. Already, the latest round of U.S. sanctions, announced on July 17, surprised observers by their severity. They targeted the third and fourth largest Russian banks -- VEB and Gazprombank -- as well as the energy companies Rosneft and Novatek, which are associated with the Putin cronies Igor Sechin and Gennady Timchenko.

Putin will, thus, have two options, both dangerous for his regime.

He could reject the conclusions of the international investigation and stand by the separatists. This would result in serious damage to the Russian economy from sanctions that might now target whole sectors such as banking or energy. Such measures would send the economy -- already forecast by the IMF to grow just 0.2% this year -- into a painful recession.

At the same time, the Kremlin would find itself more internationally isolated than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Not just the U.S. and Britain, but many other countries that were previously friendly or neutral would start to treat Putin as a pariah. And Putin would have to worry that his protégés across the border might commit some new atrocity, provoking the world into even tougher countermeasures.

Opinion: How MH17 disaster backs Russia's Putin into a corner

Putin's second option would be to accept the report's conclusions and cut off supply lines to the rebels. But that could create significant problems for him at home.

To those informed about the conflict by Russian state-controlled television, such a turnaround would be bewildering. A relentless barrage of propaganda has convinced many Russians that their co-ethnics in Donetsk and Luhansk are being massacred by troops commanded by a fascist regime in Kiev. For Putin to bow to international pressure and abandon his former charges would look like cowardice.

Such a betrayal could quickly squelch the post-Crimea euphoria. From the start, the Kremlin's strategy in Ukraine has aimed in part at consolidating domestic support. As the economy stagnates, Putin has sought to replace growth and prosperity as a basis for popularity with anti-Western nationalism and conservative values.

In the past, xenophobic nationalists have been among the least favorable toward Putin. His current astronomical ratings -- 86% in the latest Levada Center poll -- suggest at least some temporary success in winning them over.

Were he to abandon the anti-Kiev insurgents, Putin could kiss such support goodbye. Moreover, were he to admit that Russian-backed rebels fired the missile, the credibility of Russian state-controlled television would suffer. The main channels have pushed a variety of conspiracy theories, including one in which the Ukrainian military shot down the plane, mistaking it for the jet flying Putin home from the BRICS summit in Brazil. Should Putin disavow such theories and endorse the Western version, his propagandists would look like liars.

It remains possible that the investigation will fail to reach any strong conclusions, leaving Putin some wiggle room. But at this point interpretations completely exonerating Russia are few and far between.

"War," wrote Clausewitz, "is the province of chance." The danger that a covert military operation could get out of hand should have been clear all along. For 14 years, Putin proceeded cautiously in international affairs, weighing expected costs and benefits before taking action. His decision to invade Crimea was so uncharacteristically risky -- with such large potential costs and short-lived benefits -- that it took many observers by surprise.

Now, unless some new unexpected event turns up to rescue him, Putin faces an unappealing dilemma. Either way, the risks are high. Having gambled his way into trouble, he now has little choice but to roll the dice again.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Treisman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT