We can say with confidence that the tragedy of Boeing 777, which took the lives of 298 people, has brought the conflict in Eastern Ukraine to a principally new level. Now the main centers of power – Russia, the US, and the EU – must make themselves known and must take
the responsibility for stopping the war or, conversely, for its practical legitimation and expansion. Even considering the possibility that the plane was shot down by mistake, it is events of such magnitude that divide history into “before” and “after.” “After” such an event the possibilities of “strange,” “hybrid,” and other “wars without war” have been exhausted.
Over the past several months, as an endless supply of people and weapons has passed through the gaping hole in the Russo-Ukrainian border [to support the separatist forces], the nerve centre of the diplomatic struggle between Russia and the West was the question of whether Russia had a sway over the rebels or whether this was an intra-Ukrainian conflict. By giving a different answer to the question, each side could then propose a dramatically different solution. Russia needed a consensus around the idea that Ukraine was undergoing a “civil war,” which could only end through a dialogue of outside parties, who would agree to a division of Ukraine into spheres of influence. The US, on the other hand, insisted that the conflict needed to be seen as a form of undeclared but very real intervention by Russia on Ukrainian territory, that is, a variation of the good old military operations in neighbouring (and not-so-neighhbouring) countries that the US itself so enjoys undertaking on various continents. A direct consequence of such a conclusion was the not-so-successful strategy of “containing” Russia, the gradual imposition of sanctions and other activities, which could force Putin to “end the war,” which he could end as easily as he began it. Compromises in this struggle to define what is taking place would mean a direct path to defeat for each of the sides.
By the logic of this cynical and cruel diplomatic game, if the tragedy of Boeing 777 had not taken place it would have been necessary to invent it. Evidence of the role of the rebels from the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), which will probably be found very soon by the so called “international community”, will probably lead to its designation as a “terrorist organization.” Justifications for the most brutal and destructive measures against “international terrorism” were, as we know, one of trademarks of Putin’s rule. The downing of MH17 will now confront him with the question over support for the DNR, which he can only answer with “yes” or “no” (in reality, a “yes” is no longer really on the agenda). The point of this message, addressed to a single person, is most clearly expressed in the editorial of Friday’s issue [18 July] of the New York Times: “Vladimir Putin can stop this war.”
Can Putin do this in reality? Does he have such a direct control not only over the rebel leaders but also over the regular rank-and-filers? Such questions have now been put in brackets, possibly forever. The space for maneuver Russian foreign policy enjoyed came to a sudden end somewhere over the Donbass region, at a height of 10,000 metres.
The question remains is: can Putin back down? It is well known that many, both in Russia and abroad, doubt the strength of the regime’s “home front.” Nationalists prophesy a Moscow “anti-Maidan” [i.e. a “patriotic” mobilisation], which could turn on Putin if he “betrays Donbass”. Liberals and some leftists, on the other hand, count on an upsurge of dissatisfaction at the economic crisis, triggered by [the government’s] foreign policy failures.
It seems that both sidesunderrate the scope of the destructive work conducted since this spring by the Russian state over Russian society. The “new pro-Putin majority” that has been so triumphantly discovered and analysed by the Kremlin’s sociologists ready to accept any actions proposed by its rulers. A combination of abstract aggression, and fear of the spectre of instability – these are the impulses of most of our fellow [Russian] citizens. They are ready to accept anything as long as the images of war and destruction from their TV screens do not move into their own apartments. It will take time, and a great deal of patience, before feelings of dignity, the ability to think independently, and, most importantly, people’s capacity to fight in their own interests, come back to Russia.