Less then three month after the World Anti-Doping Agency’s experts concluded that the FSB and Russia’s Sports Ministry had set up and then tried to cover up a massive doping scheme for Russia’s athletes (which led to the removal of 111 Russian sportsmen from the Rio Olympics and the banning of the whole Paralympic national team from the competition), another report came out last week that has put the Kremlin on its back foot.
The Joint Investigation Team, a Dutch-led group of prosecutors, presented a report definitively stating that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 had been shot down by a “Buk” missile brought into Ukrainian separatist territory from Russia, after which the weapons system was taken back to Russia. The experts said they have proof that the Russian-made Buk 9M38 had crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border and that around 100 people were in some way involved into the process of getting the system in and out of the country. The experts say, however, that they have yet to identify the exact chain of command.
The Kremlin’s reaction to the report bears close analysis. While most Western coverage has focused on how Russia has tried to sow doubt about the findings, there are indications that Putin may want to use the report to keep his Ukraine policy options open as the economic situation gets more dire in Russia.
The Defense Ministry’s representative Igor Konashenkov was the first to comment, saying that “all the data that had been presented by the investigative team was taken from only two main sources: the internet and Ukrainian special services.” And the Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, (known for breaking out into folk jigs at international summits and reciting poems at press conferences) called the investigation biased and politically motivated, and said that Ukraine, which was party to the investigation team, “was given an opportunity to falsify evidence and turn the case to its own benefit.”
Both of those responses were largely to be expected. But later in the week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov started laying out a more nuanced Kremlin line. While being interviewed on the BBC, he described the Dutch report’s findings as “preliminary”. When pressed whether Russia accepted the findings, he deflected. “We know the devil is inside those details and unfortunately we are still missing lots of the details,” he told his host. “There are still lots of unclear things. There are still lots of contradictions. And we all have to find answers to those contradictions.”
Russia-watchers have lumped Peskov’s answers alongside his colleagues’ from earlier in the week, thinking it part and parcel of standard Russian dezinformatsiya playbook. But something else is also going on. To properly contextualize Peskov’s messaging, I would encourage readers to read a column from last week’s Kommersant.
Kommersant, which was founded in 1990, used to be independent and was one of the best political newspapers in the country. In 2008, however, Putin’s billionaire ally Alisher Usmanov bought the media holding company, and with the annexation of Crimea, Kommersant emerged as a Kremlin mouthpiece—albeit not as clumsy and vulgar as state television propaganda, and tailored for more sophisticated readers. The author of the piece, Russian journalist Andrey Kolesnikov, is a trusted insider, a member of Putin’s press pool, one of the authors of the semi-autobiography of Putin called First Person, and someone who publishes his observations about the Russian President from time to time. Some selections from the column:
How could Vladimir Putin let this happen? Didn’t he realize that by approving the handing over of the black boxes to the Dutch, he was de facto giving them to the British—in other words, putting them right in his enemies’s hands (at least, his enemies in this information war)?
The thing is, he probably did realize that. […]
It’s not completely out of the question that the Russian President, who trusts no one entirely, wants to have another information source […]
And if it finally turns out that the separatist militias have something to do with this, it will change Putin’s attitude towards them, drastically. Even if it turns out it was some kind of deadly accident…
Kids who died for no reason, adults, old people—for Putin, this is a red line he cannot cross. To cover up for those who did this knowingly… No, he will not take this sin upon himself. It is not worth it.
But in order not to cross the line, he needs to know who did this. All he could have gotten from his own sources, he apparently already got. Now he would want to get it from others. And of course, not from Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU)—with them, things are already pretty clear.
And if it turns out the rebels did not just find out about the Boeing being shot down from bits and pieces of airplane and people raining down upon them—well, the policy towards them will be reconsidered, perhaps once and for all.
Yes, Vladimir Putin will give them up.
Vladimir Putin is a good tactician and a poor strategist—a perfect opportunist, first and foremost. The biggest misunderstanding observers make when studying him is to assume that there is a coherent ideology guiding his actions. The truth is that Vladimir Putin does not at all care about Eastern Ukrainians. All he cares about are his friends’ financial interests, and his own ego. Both are suffering from Western sanctions and from the political isolation of Russia.
The doping scandal surrounding the Olympics showed Putin that the West was increasingly unwilling to go easy on his state-backed crimes. Indeed, Putin was testing the West at the time. When international sports authorities demanded that Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko and other high-profile officials be held responsible, Russia’s President decided to try to get off cheaply and merely suspended Mutko’s deputy. The harsh Olympic suspensions that followed sent a clear signal.
The MH17 report presents Putin’s regime with the threat of new sanctions, at the exact moment when their easing appeared to be within reach. Consider that Russia’s economy is suffocating: the country’s reserve funds will soon be empty, the ruble is weak, and access to Western capital markets is cut off. This is the real red line for Vladimir Putin. He badly needs sanctions to be lifted, and the Dutch report is pushing back this possibility into the distance.
Kolesnikov’s column is written with all this in mind: to prepare Russian society for Vladimir Putin’s ritual cleansing of the sin of murdering 298 people, as well as to lay the groundwork for exercising the option of getting out of the Donbas with a minimum loss of face. What was it all for, the war in Eastern Ukraine, one might ask. Again, Putin is not a strategist, but a short-term opportunist and survivor. Creating a frozen conflict that would cripple Ukraine’s development and prevent it from drifting Westward seemed like a good idea at the time. But when compared with the costs of losing wealth and power at home, Putin will not hesitate to change course.
Kolesnikov’s column helps explain Peskov’s ambiguity. The Kremlin spokesman never denied the conclusions of the report, though he also refused to accept them. The Kremlin is playing for time, but notably keeping its options open. The dezinformatsiya element is there, trying to link Ukraine’s special services to the Dutch investigation. Putin tried a similar trick to discredit the WADA report, by throwing slime and innuendo at Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Moscow doping laboratory employee who brought the fraud to light. It didn’t work in that case, but it might here. Various European leaders are growing wary of the increasingly corrupt Ukrainian regime. It’s worth a try, in any case.
But if it doesn’t work, and if on the eve of the final report being published, the Russian economy is still struggling and a Western consensus on further sanctions is coalescing—how could the Malaysian Airlines tragedy be explained in Russia? First, the blame will be assigned to several corrupt military officers (not many), who sold the Buk system to the separatists and who drove and operated it. Most of these officers will probably be found among the dead in Eastern Ukraine. Maybe one or two will be accused alive, but they will be low-level people.
And state TV will tell the Russian people heartbreaking stories of how the atrocious separatists in cold-blood killed innocent children, adults, and the elderly. And that Russia cannot carry this sin.