Putin Facing Greater Risks From MH17

Russian President Vladimir Putin's hitherto 'successful' efforts to destabilise Ukraine have now – following the destruction of flight MH17 – had much greater consequences than could have been imagined. Even though responsibility for the airliner's downing has yet to be proved conclusively, Western political leaders and the media have put forward the prevailing narrative that Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine – and indirectly President Putin himself – are to blame. This significantly raises the pressure on Putin.  

Until late June, Putin had been experiencing a relatively 'successful' war in Ukraine. Russia quickly annexed Crimea in March, marking the first expansion of Russian territory in decades. Meanwhile, Moscow's support for pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine has kept the inexperienced authorities in Kiev off balance, and amenable to Putin's demands for the federalisation of the country. In addition, Russia looked tremendously powerful in the face of the West, at a time when US President Barack Obama was facing multiple foreign policy challenges in the Middle East and East Asia, and the EU was unwilling or unable to agree amongst themselves on major sanctions towards Russia.

However, since the Ukrainian government launched a major military offensive against the separatists at the start of July, the rebels have seen reversals. The downing of MH17, if definitively attributed to the separatists, will make it appear that Putin is passing highly sophisticated military equipment to a rag-tag army that behaves recklessly.

More broadly, there is a high possibility that by backing separatists in Eastern Ukraine, Russia will have permanently alienated Western Ukrainians. Even in Eastern Ukraine, public support for secession stood at only 18% (with a further 13% undecided), according to a Pew Research opinion poll in published in May 2014. While Eastern Ukrainians favour autonomy, the rebellion has brought about substantial deaths and disruption to daily life.

Given Ukraine's geopolitical importance to Russia, any major loss of influence there would be harmful to Putin's political standing at home. Although Putin's popularity has surged to 80% following Russia's absorption of Crimea, this could evaporate quickly. Russia's economy was on a decelerating trajectory even before limited Western sanctions were introduced earlier this year. These circumstances will lead to criticism of Putin from the national security establishment's hardliners (for not doing more to help Ukrainian separatists), the oligarchs (whose business interests are under pressure from sanctions), and ordinary Russians (whose livelihoods may take a turn for the worse). Putin has a strong pragmatic streak, implying that he can still limit the fall-out. However, there is a significant danger of escalation following the destruction of MH17, if the blame game intensifies.