BLOOMINGTON – Any illusions I had about the progressive nature of the Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime quickly dissipated when I returned to my Moscow Grand Marriott room in August 2007. Upon opening the door, I was greeted with the spectacle of my papers and note pads strewn about the room. It was clear that an FSB agent stopped in to get a better handle on who this American journalist might actually be.
Since last Thursday, when it appears that Ukrainian separatists working with the Russian military shot down Malaysian Air Flight 17 killing 298 people, the entire civilized world now has a greater appreciation of the nature of Putin. On the Sunday morning talk shows, U.S. Rep. Peter King described him as a “Mafia guy” and on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the term “thug” was common-place.
The scenes we’ve witnessed at the crash site have been appalling and third world. In the following days, viewers saw imagery of rebels picking through the debris field, removing missile shards, as well as wedding rings and other personal effects. Crumpled bodies were stacked in the summer heat along railroad tracks, and then loaded into refrigerated rail cars. Dutch forensic team members finally given access five days later appeared stunned at the entire fiasco.
Among the dead were Indiana University graduate student and rower Karlijn Keijzer and former Kankakee Valley High School exchange student Laurens Van Der Graaff, her travel companion.
President Obama said a day after the shoot-down, “Nearly 300 innocent lives were taken – men, women, children, infants who had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine. Their deaths are an outrage of unspeakable proportions.”
Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris and Elias Groll would cite not only U.S. intelligence sources and satellite imagery implicating rebels and Russia, but a “mounting pile of evidence posted on social media, including posts by separatist leaders, tweets about the location of missile launchers, and YouTube videos documenting potentially incriminating conversations between the men who may have shot down the jetliner.” One included an image of a BUK missile system exiting rebel-occupied Ukraine for Russia with one of its four missiles missing.
This all conjured the aftermath of the Sept. 1, 1983, Soviet shooting of Korean Airlines Flight 007, killing 269 souls.
It prompted President Reagan, in a national address four days later, to say, “Let me state as plainly as I can: There was absolutely no justification, either legal or moral, for what the Soviets did. We and other civilized countries believe in the tradition of offering help to mariners and pilots who are lost or in distress on the sea or in the air. We believe in following procedures to prevent a tragedy, not to provoke one.”
The historical parallel is that after Reagan’s 1983 speech, he did little to sanction the decrepit, aging and paranoid Soviet regime which had created a computer system that would have taken command and control of its nuclear arsenal had it suffered a decapitating blow from the U.S.
But the shooting of Flight 007 was a turning point in several ways. It was followed by the deployment of Pershing missiles in Western Europe, and the Jason Robards’ film “The Day After,” depicting Lawrence, Kan., following a U.S.-Soviet nuclear holocaust, that drew 100 million viewers. Reagan would later realize Flight 007 had ushered in a potential nuclear crisis, spurring him to advocate a nuclear free world.
The other turning point came within Mother Russia. Flight 007 was a symptom of a corrupt and collapsing regime. With the passing of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko came the liberalizing Gorbachev, who realized the Soviet system was not only unraveling, but its closed nature could not compete with the West turning to personal computers, fax machines, cell phones and the emerging Internet.
Putin staked the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi to extend to the world his wooly imagery of the current Russian Federation, and a sanitized, mechanized remake of the Soviet Stalinist era. Polls put his internal popularity at 80 percent. Following the 1991 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush’s approval stood at 91 percent and he lost an election the following year.
The U.S. has slapped post-Crimea takeover sanctions on Putin, which have had nominal impact. If the European Union can find its spine, real pressure should be exerted. As former ambassador to Germany and now U.S. Sen. Dan Coats explained, “When you have a bully in the playground, you’ve got to stand up to him. You can’t sit there and calculate the potential economic risk.”
Obama and the EU need to step up and cripple the Russian economy and provide natural gas to Western Europe. The U.S. should arm Ukraine.
Perhaps Putin is aware of internal dangers. He rammed through a law recently allowing him to turn off social media like Twitter and Facebook, which fueled other recent uprisings.
It’s far too early to predict this being the beginning of his end. But few saw the Arab Spring, the colored revolutions in Kiev that toppled Putin’s puppets or the Soviet collapse until they were upon us. Putin may not be able to fathom how quickly power erodes after reckless mistakes and brutal miscalculations.
Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.