How damaging will Russian hypocrisy be after Malaysian Airlines 17?

Daniel W. Drezner
July 18
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands on part of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

The downing of Malaysian Airlines 17, most likely done (accidentally) by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, is a disaster wrapped in a catastrophe inside a tragedy.  The plane was carrying an awful lot of AIDS researchers on their way to a conference.  The carnage from the plane wreckage was so bad that even the rebels in Sabrina Tavernise’s story seem appalled and saddened by the catastrophe. The real tragedy, as Julia Ioffe implies in TNR and Josh Keating says flat-out in Slate, is that despite a lot of claims that this will pressure Russia and Russian-supported rebels to stand down, that’s unlikely to happen.  As Keating notes:

Any smoking-gun evidence tying separatist rebels to the crash or the separatists to Russia will be spun and denied. The rebels will deny they shot down the planem and the Russian government—as it has continually—will deny that it is supporting the rebels.

There will be pressure on the U.S. to respond forcefully against Russia, but new sanctions were announced just yesterday. The high number of European casualties on the plane may spur calls for the EU to step up its sluggish response, but those measures were also already in the works

The incident may result in a temporary lull in violence—separatists are apparently open to a three-day cease-fire—but my guess is that before long the Ukrainian military will restart its offensive against the rebels and, once Ukraine dips out of the headlines a bit, separatist activity including the supplying of fighters with arms from Russia will continue.

Indeed, Vladimir Putin said yesterday that, “the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.” That’s not the sound of a leader laying the groundwork for contrition.  And since the Russian media is already spinning the idea that Ukraine’s military shot down MH17 because they thought it was Vladimir Putin’s presidential plane, it would appear that the official line is in place.  From the occupation of Crimea onwards, Putin has lied repeatedly about Russian actions in Ukraine, so Russian hypocrisy is likely to persist into the near future.

There are those who believe this is the start of another “Guns of August”, but the proper historical parallel is to the Soviet shootdown of KAL 007.  Tensions between the U.S. and USSR were pretty damn high in 1983, and President Reagan responded with tough rhetoric… and very symbolic sanctions.  The United States has already applied more serious economic pressure on Putin’s Russia than anything the United States came up with in response to KAL 007.

So will nothing change?  Well, this question of how much great powers can act hypocritically on the world stage reminds me of something Henry Farrell wrote last week at the Monkey Cage about the effect of U.S. hypocrisy on transatlantic relations.  Specifically:

What the new controversy highlights is the role of the public. If you believe that foreign policy is still primarily driven by political elites, you are more likely to agree with [Michael] Cohen’s perspective. Leaders may be highly annoyed by U.S. spying, but they are likely very often to swallow their annoyance in the pursuit of their long-term interests. Hence, if leaders can get their way, they will very often prefer to bury scandals rather than to allow them erupt into controversies. However, Finnemore and I suggest that leaders are more constrained than they used to be. What is unusual about the new leaks is that they are being fed to independent media and hence to the mass public, making it much harder for leaders to manipulate or ignore them.

If one applies this hypothesis to Russian hypocrisy, it’s possible that the same result will hold.  That is to say, Russia’s more authoritarian partners will be irritated by this tragedy, but in the end swallow their annoyance in the pursuit of their long-term interests.  So I’d be very surprised if say, China applied any new pressure on Russia to alter its position on Ukraine.

The bigger wild card is how European countries will react; it’s possible that Russian hypocrisy will trigger some blowback.  As Peter Baker and Michael Shear note in the New York Times:

[M]ost of the passengers were Europeans. The majority of them, 154 in all, were from the Netherlands, where the flight originated, which could increase pressure on European governments to respond.

As it happens, the Netherlands is one of Russia’s largest trading partners and therefore has been among the European nations concerned about the economic impact of harsher measures against Moscow. Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands cut short a holiday in Germany to return home. “The whole of the Netherlands is in mourning,” he told reporters. “This beautiful summer day has ended in the blackest possible way.”

At a minimum, how Putin handles the aftermath of this incident will likely affect just how much the European Union will decide how much the Europeans will ratchet up sanctions against Russia.  The more hypocritically he acts, the more likely European governments will feel domestic pressure to take action.

So if you want to know how much this incident will affect the situation on the ground in Ukraine, pay attention to how the European Union reacts.  The EU has had the opportunity to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine for quite some time.  It’s possible that this incident will fortify Europe’s willingness.  The first half of 2014 has not been good for the Russian economy, and that’s before the latest round of US sanctions kicked in.  So if Europe responds, we’ll see just how much the Russian government and the Russian people will wave off an economic downturn.

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