How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Putin’s march into Ukraine last spring did not change the world. It barely even changed Europe. The EU hesitated to label the aggression as an act of war. And, although the United States and the EU agreed to impose sanctions on Moscow, the real debate in Western capitals was not how to respond, but rather, how to express resolve while doing as little as possible.
And so, for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Crimean adventure was an amazing success. It was bloodless and bold, the perfect cover for the fact that the Kremlin had lost Ukraine during Kiev’s Euromaidan protest. Putin’s domestic support skyrocketed and his international prestige outside the West grew. In countries as diverse as Argentina, Egypt, and Israel, Putin was increasingly viewed as a decisive leader facing down weak and risk-averse politicians. He even had good reasons to expect that the West’s interest in sanctioning his entourage would dissipate as soon as he stepped forward, according to Kremlin plans, as the indispensable peacemaker for the Ukrainian East.
And then the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was brought down by what was widely presumed to be a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile, killing all 298 people on board. That spelled the end of Putin’s good luck.
This week, the United States and Europe stepped up sanctions on Russia. Further, with world attention focused on eastern Ukraine, it has become increasingly difficult for Russia to support the separatists while denying that it is doing so. Indeed, in recent days, the media has whipped itself into a frenzy reporting on Moscow’s most recent actions in Ukraine -- activities that were not substantively different from those that it had been pursuing all summer.
Now, Russian troops might have to openly join the fray if Putin wants the rebel movement to survive. In Russia, Putin is already facing pressure to join the battle. Nationalists, including the ideologue Alexander Dugin, have started to criticize the president for encouraging pro-Russian separatists and then leaving them in the lurch. Yet, by getting more involved, as Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently warned, Putin’s actions could “light a fire that he loses control of.” Putin’s ability to take Crimea without a shot being fired bolstered his popularity at home, but in eastern Ukraine, he would be inserting the Russian military into what promises to be a grinding cross-border conflict with tenuous local support and no clearly defined goal.
If all that weren’t bad enough for Putin, Russia’s propaganda machine is flailing, too. It was easier to persuade a domestic Russian audience that Kiev is controlled by fascists than convince anyone that looting a poorly sealed-off crash site is essential to Russian national interests. Putin’s popularity inside Russia remains high for the moment, but it is buoyed by an idealized image of the Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, which may not survive international coverage of the crash.
In short, a single air disaster is redefining Russia’s place in the global order. But that raises a question: Why would the annexation of Crimea come with few consequences, while an accidental attack on a civilian airliner by semi-anarchical rebel forces, only loosely controlled by Moscow, lead to such an uproar?
NO TEARS FOR CRIMEA
The first part of that question is why the annexation of Crimea -- a grave violation of international law -- was such a nonevent, especially among the non-Western great powers. Brazil, China, India, and South Africa did not join the West’s efforts to punish Russia. They abstained in a UN General Assembly vote to sanction the country. Then, they used the standoff between Russia and the West as an opportunity to close some big commercial deals with Moscow. For them, the global order has always been a Western one; even when they acquiesce to it, they feel no obligation to defend it, especially when they stand to gain by not doing so.
In addition, many non-European powers were worried about Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych’s precipitous downfall in the face of street demonstrations in Kiev. They were particularly troubled that both the United States and the EU felt no qualms about supporting mass protests against a popularly elected leader. The idea of Western governments destabilizing and overthrowing a non-cooperative government was all too reminiscent of the colonial past.
Further, as soon as it was clear that the annexation would not provoke an open military clash -- that the regime in Kiev was too weak to fight back and that the Western nations were not about to become directly involved -- many rising powers took it as a sign that the United States and the West could be safely defied in other areas as well.
Finally, the annexation of Crimea never captured the imagination of non-Western societies. Too much European history was involved, and the victims of the subsequent Ukrainian crisis were ten times fewer than those killed and wounded in Syria. The conflict felt too remote, local, and insignificant -- more or less the same as Europeans might think of a war somewhere in Africa.
Meanwhile, in the West, divisions within the EU and between Europe and the United States made it impossible to build a united front in response to the Crimea annexation. Europeans feared that the United States’ meager economic ties with Russia made it too easy for Washington to push for sanctions, while Washington feared that the governments of many EU member states were too dependent on Russia’s oil and gas to do what needed to be done. European public opinion was also confused. It was appalled by Putin’s annexation of Crimea, but it was wary of both U.S. and EU interventionism.
LAND AND AIR
The second part of the question is why the shooting down of a Malaysian airplane suddenly turned the conflict into a global issue.
Violence on the ground in eastern Ukraine is local, but violence in the skies above that land is potentially global. Today’s global order is as much about the governance and security of transportation corridors, air spaces, and naval routes as it is about control of territories. The threat to international shipping posed by piracy off the coast of Somalia, for example, has triggered a robust and coordinated international response. Moreover, although the global middle class might not be able to identify with local rebels or civilians in Donetsk, it can easily identify with those who were killed when the plane was hit. Their deaths struck a blow to the heart of the interconnected world order.
For the same reason, the downing of flight MH17 has shocked the Western business classes who were previously more interested in economic relations with Russia than in the inviolability of international borders. But modern economic relations can’t exist when commercial air corridors, where business people live, are unsafe. By fostering chaos in eastern Ukraine, Putin is presumably trying to show that Kiev cannot control its own territory and that it needs Moscow to bring order. But he has apparently forgotten that disregarding national sovereignty would foment anarchy in the very spaces that the economically powerful care about most. Not surprisingly, therefore, after the downing of the Malaysian airplane, the German business association representing firms active in Russia had a sudden change of heart and began voicing support for new sanctions against Moscow.
The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russia-backed separatists and the government in Kiev, it should be said, is fraught with ambiguity. It has never been easy for outsiders to understand who is right and who is wrong. By contrast, what happened in the air was unambiguously terrifying and unforgiveable. Innocent travelers were killed by the reckless forces unable to distinguish civilian from military aircraft. The moral outrage has been compounded by the squalid handling and even robbing of the strewn corpses. The fact that an Asian carrier was brought down has ensured that much of the non-Western world is tuned in this time.
But the main reason that the international community seems to be turning against Russia after the felling of the plane is that Russia, once widely seen as an advocate of global stability against the apparently destabilizing interventions of the West, is now seen to be one of the main sponsors of global instability. Russia, it is now understood, is a great power that irresponsibly transfers dangerous modern weaponry to trigger-happy local gangsters over whom it has little real control. In short, the annexation of Crimea allowed Putin to project an image of great and effective power. The MH17 disaster, however, makes him look like a weak and ineffective gambler.
The Malaysia airlines disaster, finally, reveals much about the modern world order. More than rivalries between states, social and political instability within the states matter. Whereas nation states once mobilized their domestic resources to acquire global influence, they must now mobilize global resources in order to secure social and political stability at home. And it is Putin’s revealed recklessness -- not his dictatorial tendencies -- that is now forcing non-Europeans and Europeans to see him as a threat to peace -- a destabilizer. Putin was quickly forgiven for deliberately creating a dangerous international legal precedent, but he won’t get off quite so easily for inadvertently contributing to an accidental commercial airline disaster. In this case, at least, a tragic accident has done more than a defied precedent to redefine the global order.