The pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin grows each day. He must end his support for the rebels accused of shooting down a passenger plane over eastern Ukraine, Western leaders say, or face tougher economic sanctions and greater political isolation.
And each day, Mr. Putin makes it clearer that he’s not about to bend.
Mr. Putin is in a trap of his own making following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. He’s unable – even if he were willing – to meet the West’s demands, in large part due to the anti-Western opinion in Russia he and his Kremlin have moulded over 15 years in power.
Having cast the West as Russia’s enemy for so long, and having personally vowed to protect ethnic Russians everywhere, analysts say Mr. Putin would be fiercely criticized at home if he pulled an about-face and abandoned the separatists of the Donetsk People’s Republic under pressure from Washington and London.
Much of the world sees the pro-Russian rebels as the villains of the MH17 saga. But they have been portrayed as heroes – standing up for their right to speak Russian and choose their own course – on Kremlin-run television for the past five months, making it almost impossible for Mr. Putin to desert them now.
“People are still supportive of the government, and they buy into this picture created by Russian TV of a fascist government in Kiev trying to destroy the population of the southeast [of Ukraine], of Novorossiya,” said Sergey Utkin, head of strategic assessment at the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Sciences. “It’s a myth that’s dear to Russian conservatives,” he added, “and we have quite a lot of Russian conservatives these days – call them revanchists if you like.”
“I’m afraid we can’t hope that this conflict will end soon. Most probably, it will escalate.”
In such an atmosphere, Mr. Putin is under domestic pressure to do more, not less, to support the rebels in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine, an area collectively known as Donbass. “Putin risks coming into contradiction with public opinion [if he cuts support to the rebels]. Public opinion is very clear – do not allow the killing of ethnic Russians in Donbass,” said Sergei Markov, a Moscow-based political scientist and unofficial Kremlin spokesman.
Amid Ukrainian allegations of a renewed buildup of tanks and troops on the Russian side of the border, Mr. Markov said the option of direct Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine remained very much on the table. “The fact that Putin didn’t send the troops in yet is because it requires more preparation.”
Kiev and the West accuse Russia of having fomented the civil war in eastern Ukraine, supplying the rebels with fighters and weapons including tanks and anti-aircraft systems. More than 1,000 combatants and civilians have been killed since fighting began in April.
While other observers feel Mr. Putin is extremely unlikely to send Russian troops into eastern Ukraine following the MH17 disaster, there is still a sense in Moscow that the country is locked into a confrontation with the West with no obvious way out.
Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, once a close associate of Mr. Putin’s, warned Tuesday that there were some in Russia “who have long wanted to distance us, who have wanted isolation.” He said Russians risked seeing their standards of living fall by as much as one-fifth if the conflict in Ukraine continues and the country’s confrontation with the West grows.
“All this has fallen onto fertile ground and I’m just surprised at the scale of the anti-Western rhetoric which has emerged here,” Mr. Kudrin told the Itar-Tass news service.
Since last week’s downing of MH17, which killed all 298 people on board, Russian media have created another alternate reality, one in which the rebels aren’t presumed guilty of firing the surface-to-air missile. Theories suggesting the Ukrainian military may have downed the plane to frame Russia and its allies are given plenty of airtime.
Tuesday saw a fresh tranche of actions aimed at upping the pressure on Mr. Putin. The European Union said it was preparing new sanctions to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine, while the United Kingdom announced a public inquiry into the 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB operative who was poisoned with polonium while sipping tea in a London hotel, to determine whether the Russian state was involved.
Some Russian observers argue that each new round of blame and sanctions from the West makes Mr. Putin even less likely to do what’s being demanded of him.
“Any pressure like [new sanctions] would only strengthen the hardliners in Russia, and only lead to a more robust and tough position,” said Pavel Andreev, executive director of the Valdai Club Foundation, a state-backed foreign-policy think tank in Moscow.
Indeed, rather than acknowledging his weakening position and stepping away from his unsavoury allies in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin emerged from a much-anticipated meeting of his Security Council sounding as if he was preparing instead for an arms race against the NATO military alliance.
“NATO is demonstratively reinforcing its grouping on the territory of East European states, including in the areas of the Black and Baltic Seas,” Mr. Putin said, referring to recent alliance deployments in Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. “Because of this, we need to implement all planned measures to boost the country’s defence capabilities fully and in time, naturally including Crimea and Sevastopol.”
Crimea and the Black Sea port of Sevastopol are considered part of Ukraine by those in the West who consider Russia’s March annexation of the peninsula illegal. The seizure of Crimea marked the start of a fresh spiral in relations between Moscow and the West, with the United States, the EU and Canada implementing several rounds of sanctions since then.
The Crimea annexation was part of Russia’s response to a February revolution in Kiev, which saw the Moscow-friendly government of Viktor Yanukovych ousted in what Russia says was a Western-supported “coup.” The new government of President Petro Poroshenko is portrayed by the Kremlin as having “fascist” leanings, even though far-right candidates were distant finishers in May’s election.