For Western audiences, Moscow's initial prickly attitude to the downing of MH17 can be read as an example of how not to manage a crisis. Even with the weak hand he inherited, President Vladimir Putin has been consistently strong when on the foreign policy offensive, devising creative ways to advance Russian interests. He has made the West look hypocritical over South Ossetia, reckless in Libya, and rashly misguided on Syria.
But as MH17 demonstrates, Putin's Kremlin is one-dimensional when it finds itself on the back foot. Rather than a preparedness to assist, it has instead focused on an unconvincing sleight of hand, backed by bellicose denials.
The first mistake was having the state-controlled media devise frenzied conspiracy theories in an ill-judged attempt to deflect blame from pro-Russian separatists. One account seized on the similarities between Malaysian Airlines branding and the livery on Russian government aircraft, insinuating that Kiev had tried to bring down Putin's plane. Another story (quickly exposed as fraudulent) featured an air traffic controller's claims that Ukrainian fighters brought down MH17.
Putin's second mistake was to issue a muted statement of condolence, most of which was spent chastising Kiev for creating a war zone. His omission of any mention of the separatists was interpreted as a tacit admission that they had fired the missile, and cemented suspicions that Moscow had something to hide.
A third mistake was the cavalier way Russia has treated requests for assistance. Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was told, astonishingly, that Sergei Lavrov was on holiday, and that nobody else at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could speak to her. Putin stonewalled Mark Rutte, the Netherlands Prime Minister, over appeals for Russian aid to secure the bodies of Dutch nationals that lay strewn around the crash site. Eventually an exasperated Rutte bluntly told the Russian leader that he had 'one last chance' to help. Read More
From a domestic perspective, Putin's vigorous defence of Russia was understandable. He sees trial by an independent media as a Western affliction and has prevented it from gaining a foothold at home. Domestic political reasons prompted his officials to stress that there was no evidence of direct Russian involvement. And Moscow's confused response strongly suggests the Kremlin was as surprised as anyone else by the downing of MH17.
But in an international tragedy, winning external public relations battles is initially much more important than domestic manoeuvring. On that score, Putin's crisis management strategy has failed badly. It has failed to deflect attention away from suspected Russian involvement in the shoot-down, much less the ongoing conflict. And it has failed to mollify foreign governments demanding a secure crash site to identify and repatriate their nationals. Hence Russia has appeared obstructionist rather than proactively seeking to help.
A public relations disaster prompted by MH17 is potentially a huge blow to Russia's regional ambitions.
In Ukraine and elsewhere, Putin has relied on pushing plausible deniability to its limits. Proof that Russia was supplying the separatists, either with missiles or the technical assistance to operate them, would make any continued support hard to justify. Yet backing down in Ukraine would send a clear message to Moscow's allies in Tashkent, Astana and Minsk that Russian primacy can be challenged. In turn, that would threaten Putin's Eurasian Union, which is effectively a politico-economic bulwark against an EU-China geopolitical pincer. Without it, China, the US and the EU could tempt Russia's neighbours into more explicit multi-vector foreign policies.
If these included deals on oil and gas, Russia's main strategic multiplier would be significantly diminished. And a weakened Russia might also encourage the myriad ethnic groups on its own territory, many with long historical memories, to try their luck at secession. The West, too, recognises that Russian bellicosity stems from its vulnerability. A Russia fragmented along ethnic lines — resulting perhaps in some new states with nuclear weapons — would be a far more horrifying prospect than Putin trying to re-consolidate control over the post-Soviet space.
All of this is why a coherent Russian response to MH17 is vital.
So what could Moscow have done differently? It is unrealistic to have expected a full capitulation from Putin, especially since he was backing the likely culprit. But he could have acted more decisively and even achieved many of his aims by using his penchant for brinkmanship.
In a crisis like this, three objectives are critical. First, deflect suspicion by publicly taking a sincere and conciliatory posture, with promises of full cooperation. Second, protect one's interests by limiting damage. Third, take advantage of proximity by seizing the initiative.
Using that formula, Putin could have expressed horror at the loss of MH17 and promised to persuade the separatists to stop fighting immediately, regardless of any 'provocations'. He could then have called a Security Council meeting to guide its focus towards accessing the crash site, rather than who was to blame. Finally (and this is the insidious part) he could have declared Eastern Ukraine a dangerous warzone and unilaterally nominated Russia as the regional power with the capacity to secure it. That could have been the pretext to roll 12,000 troops across the border, ostensibly to create a cordon sanitaire to MH17's resting place.
This would have fooled nobody, but it would have been harder to argue with a 'compassionate' Russian military presence, especially if UN-backed inspectors were then allowed full access to the site. It would also be nearly impossible to dislodge Russian forces once the recovery mission had been completed.
Perhaps it is better, especially for the Ukrainians, that Putin's response has been so hastily contrived.
Image courtesy of REUTERS/David Gray.