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Too Clever by a Lot

“Blowback”. It’s a word we’ve accepted in the US through the many misadventures of proxy wars that came back to bite us. Mujahideen “Freedom Fighters” eventually became Taliban and al Qaeda. Saddam Hussein went from being a trusted bulwark against Iran to a dangerous dictator. Iran itself went from being our puppet to a dangerous force supporting an awful lot of mayhem.

Today Malaysia Air Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, almost certainly by Russian separatists. Russia, under Putin, thought they had a clever strategy for arming a bunch of poorly organized, untrained rednecks with sophisticated weapons while they claimed to not be involved at all. It went about as badly as anyone with any forethought could have imagined as they apparently shot at just about anything flying by. What will put an end to this “cleverness” operating in place of a reasonable diplomatic and military policy? If this event, and the way it’s propagating through today’s internet media, doesn’t do it nothing will.

Yeltsin, Clinton, and Kuchma signing the Budapest Memorandum, assuring Ukrainian independence in 1994

Yeltsin, Clinton, and Kuchma signing the Budapest Memorandum, assuring Ukrainian independence in 1994

It all starts with the treaties that Russia signed just after the USSR collapsed. They pledged to never violate Ukrainian sovereignty, and that was that. When Putin wanted to move into Crimea the soldiers with Russian trucks and Russian guns stripped off their insignia, and that was that. What Russians? No one broke any treaties, right?

The game became more dangerous in the Donetsk region when a militia was formed to breakaway from Ukraine. No Russians were involved, yes, but fairly heavy equipment made its way over the border. Civilians largely untrained and not connected to the civil air traffic system apparently now have highly dangerous ground to air missiles.

What resulted can only be expected. A bunch of rednecks with really powerful weapons started firing at just about everything in the air.

From below, many planes look the same.

From below, many planes look the same.

In the last week, a Ukrainian transport and a fighter were shot down. The Boeing 777 that flow overhead at 10km apparently looked like an Antonov AN-26 at a lower altitude, as they are both relatively long, skinny, and grey on the bottom.

Strelkov, the nom de guerre of the apparent commander of the Russian separatists, tweeted that they had shot down a transport. Today, only Flight 17 was shot down. The tweet was deleted, but we already know what happened.

That’s the only thing that makes today different from the “blowback” episodes of the past. Analyzing what went wrong years after the fact doesn’t stick in people’s minds nearly as well as a tweet gone awry instantly. The propaganda campaign that Russia has been effectively running through this whole conflict, conning a large number of westerners along with its own people, has collapsed. Dangerous wackos with very powerful guns are now a clear threat to everyone.

As horrible as today’s event was, we can take some small comfort in the realization that Putin’s very clever strategy of not being involved (wink, wink) has fallen apart completely in the internet age. The combination of a well supplied proxy and a PR campaign cannot hold together for too long as the rednecks with ground to air missiles are also rednecks with a twitter account. We know the whole story right away now, and the initial narrative is at least close to the correct one.

You're not as clever as you think, Vlad.

You’re not as clever as you think, Vlad.

Russia has screwed up very badly. The sanctions that took hold today will only become more severe. Europe will not stand idly by as international commerce becomes dangerous – they do have their limits, after all.

Meanwhile, 295 people died needlessly in a war that most of them didn’t understand at all. The horror of it will play over and over. Putin’s strategy wasn’t just too clever, it was far, far too clever. It’s also antique. You can’t control the media all the time, and you certainly can’t control the wackos on your side once you give them the best weapons available.

It’s more than just “blowback” this time. The entire premise of a proxy war is shattered. We don’t have secrets the way we used to, and the world is finding out in real time what really happened. Putin’s pleas of innocence are obviously lies.

How many more will have to die because of his meddling? A swift response from the West is now very much needed. And it will happen. Putin was too clever by a lot, and now he will pay. Not as much as the innocents on Flight 17, but he will pay.

11 thoughts on “Too Clever by a Lot

  1. The US Navy shot down an airliner and killed a similar number of people in 1988, “Iran Air Flight 655 was an Iran Air civilian passenger flight from Tehran to Dubai that was shot down by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes on 3 July 1988. The attack took place in Iranian airspace, over Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, and on the flight’s usual flight path.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_Air_Flight_655) As far as I know the US has never apologized and the crew members responsible were given medals.

    How clever is that

    • Simply horrible. We have certainly created a lot of mayhem around the world, so I’m not letting the US off the hook by any means (I opened the way I did because, for some reason, people seem to think that going after Putin’s aggression is to take an exclusively pro-US position). I can imagine a process with Iran where we finally apologize for this, all we did with the Shah, and for arming Iraq. It’s long past time to admit our failures. A truly strong nation can do that – it’s a weak one that cannot.

  2. Russia was not able to be be what they envisioned themselves to be through the entity of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.This was traumatic. Hence, irredentist and revanchist ideas inhabit Russian foreign policy dreams.

    The Euro crisis seemed to suggest that Germany controls Europe. Russia wants to challege this control.

    • That is a very good point – that this is all part of a century-long conflict between Russia and Germany that is in a particularly cool but suspicious phase right now. That did come up in part through the Russian propaganda on Ukraine as they alleged that those who overthrew Yanukovych were all Nazis (and there are a lot of actual Nazis in Ukraine today, sadly).
      But yes, primarily this is an attempt to hold USSR together, which is to say hold the old Tsarist Empire together. We had to expect Putin to resist, so resorting to a proxy war is actually a hopeful sign that he’s not going to do anything stupid, given the stakes.

    • I think that Russia has to be the net loser in all of this. Putin appears to be losing more and more through his hard stand against Ukraine’s likely accession to the EU. A more reasonable stand might be to attempt to dominate the EU itself, which would be interesting.

  3. Thoughts:

    Putin came up in a much tougher school than Obama and he’s tougher and smarter. Saying he’s going to lose this may well be wishful thinking–on the Russian/Ukrainian border, the US writ does not run. It’s not pretty, but neither is US imperialism in Latin America (say).

    The US has a whole lot to answer for in terms of the collapse of the Russian economy after the breakup of the empire.

    Has the US//Nato side really sought a sustainable, mutual-security scenario in central Europe, as opposed to taking as much advantage as possible of (temporary?) Russian weakness?


    • I don’t see the US or Obama as having any significant role in this, period. We apparently have little to no influence over Ukraine, given how the people responsible for the credit card theft from Target and others have been traced to Odessa and have suffered no consequences at all. If we were, as many conspiracy theorists report, pushing the government change for our own interests it would seem that this would be one of the first things our puppet would take care of. Nothing has been done.

      Given that the US has essentially no role in this, it’s all on the EU. And the EU is not exactly hostile to Russia – more like codependent. It will give in to Putin until it can’t give anymore. My point is that at that point Putin’s hand will be laid bare, and the tattered relations with the EU will cost the oligarchs that really run Russia a LOT of money (The MICEX is down considerably this month and this year).

      So how will Putin lose? Don’t look to the military, that’s only a sideshow. The EU plays for money, and money alone. And they will beat the crap out of Russia.

      • Perhaps the economic relationships will in fact be a deterrent to the old style of war.

        The EU despite the euro crisis yields power.

        I always wonder whether the UN or Nato really are useful in crises. I know that they are necessary and are a force for good but it is hard tsay if they really play a role in power politics among the US China Russia and Europe.The list of so called great powers is supposed to include Japan and India, but they aren’t on the security council. Europe is on the council thru UK and France. Tho Germany holds the cards.

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