STOLYPIN: MH17 as metaphor for Russia

By bne IntelliNews July 21, 2014

Mark Galeotti of New York University -


There is still much that is unclear about the tragic shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, and much that will probably never be known. Nonetheless, it does seem most probable it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile operated by insurgents that was either provided by Russia or else stolen from Ukrainian army stocks and maintained and prepared for action with Russian expertise. Understandably, anger at Moscow is mounting, even though there is no evidence that the rebels either realized they were shooting down a civilian airliner or were acting under the direct orders of the Kremlin.

Of course, on one level that is irrelevant. Moscow has engineered a state of civil war in eastern Ukraine and provided undisciplined and often thuggish rebels with advanced weaponry; it can hardly fail to be regarded as having blood on its hands. Nonetheless, there is a poignant irony to the fact that having got away with many acts clearly dictated by Moscow, from assassinations abroad to annexing Crimea, the Russian government faces its toughest foreign policy challenge yet from something for which it only created the conditions.

This highlights another irony of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. For all his unquestioned mastery of the Kremlin, his “tsar redux” personal style of leadership, and his commitment to the “power vertical,” one must question just how much real control he has over the execution of his policies, both at home and abroad.

Sometimes, this is deliberate. In the case of eastern Ukraine, Russia’s campaign to stir up chaos in order to put pressure on Kyiv was precisely intended as war on the quiet and on the cheap. Not anticipating that it would last as long as it has, and in the process acquire its own momentum, Moscow opted simply to arm, protect and encourage local and imported proxies.

What seemed a cynically efficient strategy has proven to be problematic. Unable or unwilling to compromise in the early weeks and months, Kyiv has regained its nerve and purpose and mustered its security forces. Slavyansk has fallen and, without more extensive (and more obvious) Russian support, then Kyiv is probably able to crush the insurgency militarily, albeit not without serious loss of life on every side.

Take me to your leader

Meanwhile, who is in charge of the insurgency? The “defense minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Igor Girkin — who goes by the nom de guerre Strelkov — was a Russian intelligence officer and likely still is, but he also appears at least to a degree to have gone native and has openly criticized Moscow for not supporting the rebellion more. Even if Strelkov and the rest of the DPR leadership were brought to heel though, it is not at all clear how much real power they have over the various field commanders.

According to intercepted telephone conversations released by the Ukrainian Security Service — unconfirmed but highly plausible — the decision to shoot down MH17 was taken by the commander of a Cossack unit on his own authority. This was reported to the DPR command after the fact.

Not only do units and commanders in the rebellion have considerable military autonomy, they (ab)use their positions — their firepower and the capacity to kill, beat and threaten with impunity — for personal or political gain. Cases of institutionalized looting (unlike the individual cases which have been punished with draconian ferocity), shakedowns at checkpoints and the settling of old scores are numerous.

Meanwhile, commanders and interests are at odds. The feud between Strelkov and Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok Battalion, has become public knowledge. Meanwhile there are suggestions that the powerful oligarch Rinat Akhmetov has made deals with field commanders to keep his business interests safe. There are also divisions between those eager to see a “Novorossiya” joining the Russian Federation, and those instead simply looking for what they consider a more equitable status within Ukraine.

No one within the insurgency is challenging the DPR leadership. But they need to work with the field commanders and often simply don’t fully know exactly what is going on, on the ground — as with MH17.

Furthermore, with little real central control and no evidence that Moscow can call the shots, how can a meaningful peace be reached, even if Kyiv is minded to talk terms? The only way it could be done is if the DPR leadership — and/or Moscow —can either broker a consensus or else in effect fight a civil war within a civil war and force a deal on the field commanders.

In short, the eastern Ukrainian insurgency holds up — in its own bloody and toxic way — a mirror to wider processes within Russia itself.

Turning a blind eye

No one within the elite is challenging Putin, and when he wants he is able to sweep away anyone he pleases. But he also depends on that elite and working with them often means turning a blind eye to inefficiencies and corruption simply to maintain that working relationship. There is, in effect, an unspoken etiquette, a sense of the acceptable levels of nepotism, sloth and graft.

From time to time, an especially egregious violator of these norms will be chosen as an example. One such was the Dagestani power-broker, Makhachkala mayor Said Amirov — known as “Said the Deathless” for surviving perhaps 15 assassination attempts — who was convicted in July for orchestrating the murder of a rival. However, it speaks volumes that to arrest Amirov the Kremlin had to send in special forces from Moscow, unwilling to rely on the local police, and spirit him away to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.

More often, though, the clans, factions and opportunists of the elite are doing their best to enrich and advance themselves by any means available, short of arousing the Kremlin’s ire. That often involves keeping their deals secret (there is a reason why the Kremlin is so keen on extending its financial monitoring structures), moving assets out of Russia and thus the government’s reach (ditto), and even manipulating the central leadership to their own ends. When the security agencies fight over turf, budgets and precedence, for example, they tend to do so by presenting themselves to the Kremlin as the most loyal and the most useful, all in the name of institutional gain.

Putin has shown an awareness of the debilitating impact of endemic corruption, factionalism and inefficiency. However, he has also built a system of power that depends on keeping the elites happy and supportive by granting them limited but extensive license to embezzle. Just as the hands-off approach in Ukraine seemed tremendously successful until it suddenly didn’t, so too the social contract at home. With capital flight increasing, the budget under severe pressure and the first hints of quiet discontent within the elite, Putin may well find himself wanting to turn the rhetoric of the disciplined, centralized power vertical into a reality. But can he do so without fighting a (political) war with his own elite?

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SCPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University, who writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows.


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