Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Western inaction bolsters Putin's web of lies

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Ukrainian emergency workers carried a victim's body in a body bag last week as a pro-Russian fighter guarded the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove in eastern Ukraine.

EVGENIY MALOLETKA / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Ukrainian emergency workers carried a victim's body in a body bag last week as a pro-Russian fighter guarded the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove in eastern Ukraine.

In 1991, when Soviet Communism collapsed, it seemed the Russian people might at last have the chance to become citizens of a normal western democracy. President Vladimir Putin's disastrous contribution to Russia's history has been to set his country on a different path.

Nonetheless, many around the world, through self-interest or self-deception, have been unwilling to see Putin as he really is.

The downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, the killing of 298 innocent people and the desecration of their bodies in the sunflower fields of eastern Ukraine is, above all, a tragedy of lives cut short and of those left behind to mourn. However, it also is a measure of the harm Putin has done.

Under him, Russia again has become a place in which truth and falsehood are no longer distinct and facts are put into the service of the government. Putin sets himself up as a patriot, but he is a threat to international norms, to his neighbours and to the Russians themselves, who are intoxicated by his hysterical brand of anti-western propaganda.

The world needs to face the danger Putin poses. If it does not stand up to him today, worse will follow.

Putin has blamed the tragedy of MH17 on Ukraine, yet he is the author of the plane's destruction. A high court's worth of circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that pro-Russian separatists fired a surface-to-air missile out of their territory at what they probably thought was a Ukrainian military aircraft. Separatist leaders boasted about it on social media and lamented their error in messages intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence and authenticated by America.

Russia's president is implicated in their crime twice over. First, it looks as if the missile was supplied by Russia, its crew was trained by Russia and, after the strike, the launcher was spirited back to Russia.

Second, Putin is implicated in a broader sense because this is his war. The linchpins of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic are not Ukrainian separatists but Russian citizens who are, or were, members of the Russian intelligence services. Their former colleague, Putin, has paid for the war and armed them with tanks, personnel carriers, artillery and, yes, batteries of surface-to-air missiles. The separatists pulled the trigger, but Putin pulled the strings.

The enormity of the destruction of flight MH17 should have led Putin to draw back from his policy of fomenting war in eastern Ukraine. Instead he has persevered, for two reasons.

First, in the society he has done so much to mould, lying is a first response. The disaster immediately drew forth a torrent of contradictory and implausible theories from his officials and their mouthpieces in the Russian media: Putin's own plane was the target, and Ukrainian missile-launchers were in the vicinity.

The lies only got more complex: The Russian fiction that a Ukrainian fighter jet had fired the missile ran into the problem that such a jet could not fly at the altitude of MH17, so Russian hackers then changed a Wikipedia entry to say the jets could do so, albeit briefly. That such clumsily Soviet-style efforts are easily laughed off does not defeat their purpose, for their aim is not to persuade but to cast enough doubt to make the truth a matter of opinion. In a world of liars, might not the West be lying, too?

Second, Putin has become entangled in a web of his own lies, which any homespun moralist could have told him was bound to happen. When his hirelings concocted propaganda about fascists running Kyiv and their crucifixion of a three-year-old boy, his approval ratings among Russian voters soared by almost 30 percentage points, to better than 80 per cent. Having roused his people with falsehoods, the tsar cannot suddenly wriggle free by telling them that, on reconsideration, Ukraine's government is not too bad. Nor can he retreat from the idea that the West is a rival bent on Russia's destruction, ready to resort to lies, bribery and violence as readily as he does.

In that way his lies at home feed his abuses abroad.

In Russia such doublespeak recalls the days of the Soviet Union, when Pravda claimed to tell the truth. This "mendocracy" will end in the same way as that one did: The lies eventually will unravel, especially as it becomes obvious how much money Putin and his friends have stolen from the Russian people, and he will fall.

The sad novelty is that the West takes a different attitude this time around. In the old days, it was usually prepared to stand up to the Soviet Union and call out its falsehoods. With Putin, it looks the other way.

Take Ukraine. The West imposed fairly minor sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea, and threatened tougher ones if Putin invaded eastern Ukraine. To all intents and purposes, he did exactly that: Troops paid for by Russia, albeit not in Russian uniforms, control parts of the country. The West found it convenient to go along with Putin's lie, however, and the sanctions eventually imposed were too light and too late. Similarly, when he continued to supply the rebels under cover of a ceasefire he claimed to have organized, western leaders vacillated.

Since the murders of the passengers of MH17, the responses have been almost as limp. The European Union is threatening far-reaching sanctions... but only if Putin fails to co-operate with the investigation or if he fails to stop the flow of arms to the separatists. France has said it will withhold the delivery of a warship to Putin if necessary, but is proceeding with the first of the two vessels on order. The Germans and Italians claim to want to keep diplomatic avenues open, partly because sanctions would undermine their commercial interests. Britain calls for sanctions, but it is reluctant to harm the city of London's profitable Russian business. The United States is talking tough but has done nothing new.

Enough. The West should face the uncomfortable truth that Putin's Russia is fundamentally antagonistic. Bridge-building and resets will not persuade him to behave as a normal leader. The West should impose tough sanctions now, pursue his corrupt friends and throw him out of every international association that relies on telling the truth.

Anything else is appeasement, and an insult to the innocents on MH17.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 A17

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