Two Russia analysts on BBC radio this morning concurred: after so many years walled-up in the Kremlin, bathed in the asses’ milk of absolute power, surrounded and advised only by a small coterie of likeminded former KGB colleagues, Mr Putin is out-of-touch, delusional, poorly informed about what is going on in the world, a victim of his own propaganda, not – for an intelligence man – particularly intelligent and, quite probably, dangerously mad (and a closet gay… no, they didn’t say that) to boot.
Well, and well.
The problem for Mr Putin in Ukraine, since the downing of Flight MH17, has been that if he gives way to strident demands from the USA to use his influence on the pro-Russian separatist rebel leaders to co-operate with the international investigation, he will a) have to submit to the findings of the investigation, which may go against Russia; and b) let it be known that he does have influence over the separatists, which up to now he has denied.
The fact is that he most probably does not know how the plane came to be shot down, any more than the West does; but that he privately shares the West’s suspicions.
Consequently he is having to play a difficult hand. I suspect that he has been genuinely taken aback by the shooting-down of the civil airliner last week with almost 300 people on board. It was not part of the plan, and it has embarrassed him. The plan was to use the minimum of Russian cross-border involvement to stir-up the revolt in Eastern Ukraine. The downing of Flight MH17, whose passengers came from so many outraged countries, probably through the incompetence of a semi-trained rebel operative, has raised the stakes. Thus far, the supply of heavy weapons, money and training to the rebels has come from mysterious origins, seemingly with no clear trail leading back to Moscow. To intercede with the separatists in the combat zone is to admit that the sophisticated BUK mobile anti-aircraft missile launcher probably used in the attack – we still don’t really know – was one of his.
So, for home consumption, he has played the nationalist card and is using the State-controlled media to mount a massive disinformation campaign, attempting to throw blame on almost anyone else. He knows no-one outside Russia will ever believe he is innocent, but he can create enough of a smokescreen of blatantly contrarian disinformation to sow the seeds of doubt, especially among his many traditionalist supporters. He does not have to care about Western opinion. The tide of public opinion in Russia has swung behind him, as he has cleverly turned the disaster into an issue of anti-Russian sentiment and threat from the West, against which he knows a significant number of Russians will react with their hearts, rather than their heads. He has made ordinary Russians feel like they are the real victims of this disaster.
On the other hand, he must be relishing the extent to which the West has fallen consistently behind the curve on Ukraine since the start of his destabilisation campaign. This morning’s news is that the rebels have conceded almost everything the West was demanding. The bodies – those 20o or so that could be found scattered amid the alien corn – have been collected, bagged, ticketed, put on board a handy refrigerated train and shipped off to a Government-controlled town, to be handed over to the Dutch authorities, who lost the most citizens. The two ‘black box’ flight recorders that disappeared from the crash site on Day 1 have magically reappeared, and been handed over to the Malaysian air accident investigation team.
And, just as the British warrior PM David Cameron, his eye on the upcoming General Election, is tub-thumping and huffing and puffing in Brussels, demanding more ‘sanctions’ (short of anything that might upset business as usual in the City of London) while the spineless jellyfish who run the rest of the EU are quivering and havering over their pathetic gas supplies and their Russian business contracts, the rebels have declared a ceasefire in the civil war the West had somehow failed to notice was even happening, in a six-mile zone around the crash site, to enable investigations to take place. The fact that the evidence is now so compromised and contaminated as to be virtually useless will not have escaped Mr Putin. While we continue feebly to demand yesterday’s appropriate actions today, he has already conceded the point and moved on.
Thus, it is clear that he has, in a rather clever way, and despite being totally mad, ignorant and out-of-touch, outfoxed everyone. He knows we know, but cannot prove, that he has indeed brought the Kremlin’s influence to bear on the rebels, whom he has clearly been arming; and that as far as public opinion at home is concerned, it doesn’t matter a damn. He has been able to make concessions without being seen to have done so, because his clandestine ex-special forces operatives ARE the rebel leaders; and he knows we know that too, and that, far from condemning him, the Russian people will love him all the more for ‘standing up’ to Western pressure – while the truth is that he has had to give way to it, albeit on his own terms.
These stratagems are not the product of a diseased and delusional mind, and the most dangerous thing is for the West to believe he is not acting rationally. The whole operation since he succeeded in annexing the Crimean peninsula with barely a drop of blood spilled has been run on the principle of total, cynical deniability, that he has brilliantly carried to a whole new level. It is proving an object lesson in crisis management.
As long as the Russian people can have their patriotic indignation button so easily pushed, like the button that launched the rocket that killed 298 innocent civilians, 80 of them children, 33 thousand feet above the battle zone he controls, Mr Putin remains untouchable, either at home or abroad.