Putin's Next Move

The Russian president isn't checkmated quite yet. But the downing of MH17 has left him with few good options.

MOSCOW — When the Kremlin announced that Vladimir Putin would hold a special session of his Security Council on July 22 to discuss the "safeguarding of sovereignty and territorial integrity," observers around the world wondered what ace the cagey Russian president might have up his sleeve this time.

Since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was fell from the skies over eastern Ukraine on July 17, Putin has faced increasingly angry calls to end his support for the rebels who are suspected of shooting down the plane. Would he take this opportunity to close the border with Ukraine and cut off the uprising from Russian volunteers and weapons? Or would he react defiantly, perhaps by starting a military operation in response to Ukrainian troops allegedly shelling Russian territory in recent weeks?

Putin has done neither. For the moment, at least, the Russian president appears to be stalling, moving neither toward reconciliation nor toward a complete break with the West. He promised to put pressure on the rebels to ensure that the investigation of the crash site moves ahead, a significant development considering that throughout the five-month-long Ukraine crisis he has not agreed to compel the rebels to do anything at Western leaders' request. But at the same time, Putin also defaulted to the role in which he has been the most comfortable since the crisis in Ukraine began, lashing out at the West for its sanctions and pinning the blame on the government in Kiev.

The Malaysia Airlines disaster seems to have put Putin in a zugzwang, the German chess term beloved by Russian political scientists that signifies a situation in which any move will weaken a player's position. On the one hand, new sanctions could take a serious toll on Russia's economy. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a top advisor to Putin, recently warned that further sanctions could lead to cuts in ordinary Russians' salaries by up to 20 percent. Additional sanctions from the European Union are likely this week because Putin has failed to offer last-minute concessions and has reportedly decided to continue arming the rebels in eastern Ukraine. But on the other hand, Putin cannot abandon the conflict in eastern Ukraine after investing so much political capital, both domestic and international, into the conflict with Kiev. He is unlikely to allow the rebels to be defeated.

"Putin was, throughout the previous months, able to execute clever foreign-policy maneuvers so as not to compromise on his policy on Ukraine but yet avoid deeper and broader sanctions, by playing on differences between the United States and Europe and even between different European countries," says independent political analyst Masha Lipman. "But it seems his space for maneuver has shrunk after the Malaysia Airlines tragedy."

For now, the president may just be biding his time. Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, an independent think tank, says Putin will wait to see whether the investigation turns up direct evidence of who is to blame for the plane's downing. Only then will he have to formulate a reaction.

But stalling will only work for so long. U.S. officials have repeatedly called on Putin to stop supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine. But if the rebels suffered a military defeat at the hands of Kiev, which would likely occur if they were cut off from Russian supplies, Putin would face serious challenges at home.

Shrill Russian media coverage of the Ukraine crisis, as well as Putin's own promises to protect Russian-language speakers across the former Soviet Union, have placed the public solidly behind the rebels. A June poll found that 40 percent of Russians supported direct military intervention in eastern Ukraine, and 64 percent thought Moscow should support the rebels with weapons and military advisors.

Backing down from the Ukraine standoff by closing the border, summoning back Russian leaders and volunteers, and leaving the rebels to their fate in the hands of the "fascists" in Kiev would surely cut into Putin's approval rating, which according to Gallup has just tied the 83 percent he achieved after Russia's military intervention in Georgia in 2008. This widespread support cements the "pillar of Russian stability" -- Putin's position as the arbiter of Kremlin disputes -- and any decrease in popularity or disappointment of expectations could open fractures within the political elite, Lipman says.

Further pressure on Putin comes from the far-right pundits who have been promoting a "Russian Spring" in which Russian-speaking territories scattered across the former Soviet Union will be reconquered. Ideologues such as Alexander Dugin, a philosophy professor who has called on Russia to seize Ukraine and challenge American hegemony in Europe, regularly appear on prime-time television and serve as advisors to members of parliament.

"We shouldn't depend on Putin's vacillation," Dugin wrote on his Facebook page the day after Putin's Security Council speech. "He vacillates, but the Russian people do not. He drags out the decision, but the Russian people have already made it. Novorossiya will exist. The Russian World will exist." (Novorossiya is a term pan-Slavic nationalists use for the swath of southern and eastern Ukraine they consider to be Russian by history and culture.)

But while Putin puts forward a strong face for domestic consumption, the reality on the ground has been different. The Kremlin did not deploy ground troops to eastern Ukraine as the rebels requested, and the pro-Russian militias remain poorly armed compared with the unmarked Russian units that took over Crimea in March. This is not an accident, says Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin insider turned liberal pundit: Putin has even been conducting a policy of "careful de-escalation" in eastern Ukraine for the past two to three weeks, removing Russian fighters -- and therefore Kremlin culpability -- from the rebellion. But to compensate, he had to step up weapons shipments to the rebels, which led to the Malaysian Airlines disaster.

"He was the first to distance himself from the rebels, and the fact he said he is ready to put pressure on them is really a gesture," Pavlovsky says. "We don't know whether it will be fulfilled, but he's showing he wants a diplomatic solution to the conflict." Now Ukraine and the West must make concessions of their own to show they want to negotiate and allow Putin to compromise without losing face, Pavlovsky argues.

But those close to the Kremlin, such as Sergei Markov, the deputy head of Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, don't see Putin as compromising right now or in the future. Putin will continue his current strategy of helping the rebels, and not only out of fear for his approval rating, Markov says.

"Putin is not afraid to make harsh decisions," Markov said. "More important for him than his rating is that he really thinks that the U.S. goal [in the Ukraine crisis] is to make Ukraine anti-Russian and start a war between Ukraine and Russia, engineer a coup, and bring to power its puppets, who will destroy Russia."

That may sound outlandish, but Putin spent much of his July 22 speech warning against fifth columnists and coup attempts. Countries opposing the West face externally incited "color revolutions" to overthrow their governments, Putin said in his 13-minute speech to his Security Council. He added that intelligence services, information technologies, and nongovernmental organizations will be used to "stir up the sociopolitical situation" and "hit weak spots" in Russia. He pledged to strengthen the country's defenses, especially in recently annexed Crimea, and to retaliate against new NATO exercises near Russia's borders and U.S. efforts at missile defense.

Despite the defiant tone, Putin is clearly at a crossroads. He will have to reckon with the promises to protect Russian-language speakers that he made to justify Crimea's annexation and the nationalist fervor they evoked, says Lukyanov. "He needs to make a choice between the idea of a national Russian Spring, protecting our countrymen, reuniting the Russian world that's been fragmented, and Russia's geopolitical strategic interests," he says. No matter which way he moves, Putin can only lose.

Photo by ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images


The Eye of the Storm

During a lull in the fighting, Gaza’s residents returned to assess the damage and came away without hope.

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza — The destruction is total. No building has been left untouched by Israel's bombardment in the Masryeen neighborhood in this northeast Gaza town. Mounds of rubble line the streets where buildings once stood. Dead horses and donkeys lie in the road, stiff with rigor mortis. Even colors have been erased. The entire area is covered in gray cement dust, a monochromatic wasteland. The smell of death lingers in the air as the bodies yet to be retrieved from the debris decompose in the summer heat. The sounds of shelling and airstrikes have stopped but the buzzing of the drones remains.

A 12-hour humanitarian truce agreed to by Israel and Hamas took hold on Saturday morning, allowing residents displaced from the areas hardest hit by Israel's assault to return to their neighborhoods for the first time in days. Gaza health officials said more than 100 bodies were recovered during the lull, bringing the Palestinian death toll above 1,000, the vast majority of them civilians, including more than 200 children. Forty-three Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel have also been killed. On Sunday, as the conflict entered its 2oth day, Israel announced that it would extend the quiet for 24 hours, but a more lasting cease-fire remains elusive. (And by Sunday's end in Gaza, the fighting had resumed.)

"We don't just want a humanitarian truce; we want a total cease-fire that will end the siege. Truce after truce is not what we're looking for," Ihab al-Hussein, Hamas's deputy information minister, told me in an interview on Saturday in Gaza City. "This is not a real truce because that would mean Israel pulling out its tanks from Gaza," he said. "We didn't start this war; we don't want it. If you ask Palestinian people they say they want a cease-fire but with an agreement to end the siege."

In the hours leading up the temporary cease-fire, the Israeli air force dropped 100 bombs, each containing a ton of explosives, on Beit Hanoun, a town in northeastern Gaza close to the borders with Israel, according to Haaretz. Many of Beit Hanoun's 30,000 residents had fled the area.

The devastation is so complete that some residents who returned during the temporary cease-fire on Saturday could not locate where their homes once stood. A man walked alone in the middle of the road, surveying the wreckage. "This is a town of ghosts, not people," he said aloud to himself.

Hamza al-Masry, a 27-year-old from al-Masryeen, sat crouched atop a pile of broken cement and twisted rebar that used to be his family home, a four-story apartment building that once housed 50 people. He came back to try to salvage something. There was nothing left.

"I couldn't get anything out. I can't even find clothes," he said. "I only have the ones I am wearing." He says he left his home with his family on Monday and sought refuge in a nearby United Nations school. The shelter was shelled on Thursday as 1,500 displaced Palestinians were gathered in the schoolyard, awaiting buses to transfer them to another area.

Al-Masry said at least four shells hit the school, sending hundreds fleeing into the streets in panic. Sixteen people were killed and 200 wounded in the attack. Displaced again, al-Masry is now staying at another U.N. school, in Jabalia, further south. "We don't want a cease-fire anymore," he said. "After the destruction we have seen, all we want is resistance."

An initial 12-hour humanitarian pause in the fighting was all that the two sides could agree to. Israel rejected international proposals for a seven-day-long cease-fire on Friday, media outlets in Israel reported

"The ball is in Israel's court; it has to respond to the international community," Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas spokesman and member of parliament, told me in an interview on Sunday in Gaza City. "If the siege continues, the resistance will continue the siege of the airport in Tel Aviv," he said, referring to rocket fire out of Gaza that has disrupted flight traffic at Israel's Ben Gurion airport. "Our demands are the demands of the Palestinian people."

One of the bloodiest days of the conflict came on July 20, when Israel pummeled Shejaiya, a neighborhood east of Gaza City, forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee. Thousands returned to the area for the first time on Saturday after the temporary cease-fire came into effect at 8:00 a.m.

By midday, they poured out of the neighborhood, carrying what little they could salvage before the bombs started falling again. Clothes were bundled into sheets and slung over backs, mattresses piled on the roofs of cars, families' few remaining belongings crammed onto rickshaws and donkey carts. 

"It looks like another Nakba," said a bystander, referring to the Arabic for "catastrophe," the term Palestinians use for the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands during the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.

On Shejaiya's al-Nazzaz street, every other building has been smashed into the ground. Debris is everywhere. Om Mohammed Sukkar sat on the curb opposite what is left of her home. A bulldozer cleared rubble away. She was waiting for it to dig her son's body from underneath the house. She had fled early on the morning of July 20, the day the assault on Shejaiya began. Her 25-year-old son, Mohamed, refused to leave. She said he was "in the resistance" and that she is proud of it. But she wants an end to the fighting. "We don't want war. We want to live in our houses," she said. "A temporary cease-fire is not enough."

Some Shejaiya residents had held out hope that their homes would be spared, only to find utter devastation. Ahmed al-Jamal, a 60-year-old grandfather, sat on a plastic chair in front of the wreckage of his home. "I had no idea it was destroyed," he said. He stared at the floor, picking absently at a piece of wire by his foot. "I came to get my things during the cease-fire and I found nothing. I don't know where we'll go."

His nephew, Ahmed al-Jamal, 27, said he called his mother in the morning to tell her the house had been razed and she had a heart attack upon hearing the news and was taken to hospital. "None of us are in the resistance," he said, adding that he volunteers for the Red Cross and his brother is a doctor at a children's hospital. "I am living in a U.N. school now but when the war ends I will come back here and set up a tent. This is my land -- I won't leave it for the occupiers to occupy."

At another torn-up building, Ataf Ettish, a Health Ministry administrator and a mother of four, sat across from her home, muttering words of prayer. The building's facade has been ripped away, exposing her daughter's bedroom. The walls are painted pink and blue. Ettish evacuated last week with her family and is now staying at a U.N. school. She said they are living 50 people crammed into a single classroom. "Imagine more than 2,000 people using two toilets," she said. "I never imagined I could live this life." According to the United Nations, at least 165,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced since the conflict began, more than double the number during Israel's 2008-2009 assault.

Ettish does not expect the temporary cease-fire to last long. "The worst is coming. We don't know what they are planning," she said. "I wish to see Netanyahu in Hell, burning there."

Even the shaky cease-fires are only temporary. Ettish's pessimism doesn't seem misplaced. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's attempts to broker a longer cease-fire have failed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that his government would do "whatever is necessary" to defeat Hamas. Hamas, for its part, said it will not stop fighting until Israeli troops are removed from Gaza and displaced residents are able to return home.  

In central Gaza City, the streets came alive during the pause in fighting. Traffic congested the roads, shops opened for business, and people rushed to banks to collect salaries and withdraw cash. In the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood, the street market was once again bustling with the cacophony of urban life. Residents were stocking up on food and goods, expecting only a temporary respite. Many believe more bloodshed is in store.

"The war will continue," said Mohamed Shaaban, a 23-year-old selling roasted pumpkin seeds. "Negotiations won't help the Palestinian people. The Israelis have to pull out their tanks and open the crossings. People have no work, no future, and nothing to hope for here."

MOHAMMED ABED / AFP / Getty Images