Russia's blame game over Malaysian Airlines MH17

Like Napoleon, Richard Nixon and countless others, Don Murray writes, there is a limit to plausible deniability. When does Vladimir Putin own up to what others do at his urging?

Like Napoleon, Richard Nixon, countless others, there is a limit to plausible deniability

Armed pro-Russia rebels stand guard over the Malaysian Airlines MH17 crash site in Eastern Ukraine as Ukrainian and European investigators attempted to organize a thorough search and reclaim bodies. (Reuters)

A Malaysian Airlines passenger jet shot down over Eastern Ukraine. 298 dead. Worse than a crime, a blunder.

That thought may have crossed the mind of Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent days. He might also want to reflect on the historical event, and its consequences, that spawned that damning notion in the first place.

In the early years of the Napoleonic age, a duke was kidnapped by special forces, specially rendered across a state border, found guilty of conspiracy on no evidence at a midnight trial, bundled into a ditch and shot.

This happened in France 210 years ago in the aftershocks of the French Revolution. The victim was the Duke of Enghien, who had been living in a neutral German state bordering on France.

The men who planned and executed this murder were Napoleon's lieutenants, who thought, wrongly, that the duke was leading a conspiracy to kill Napoleon and restore the French monarchy.

Napoleon himself always defended the brutally immoral act. But one of his lieutenants, chief of police Joseph Fouché, was heard to mutter soon after: "Worse than a crime, a blunder."

Like Napoleon, Putin seems determined to tough it out. His first reaction was to blame Ukraine for the downed airliner because of the war on its territory. "Obviously, the state over which this incident took place is responsible for this terrible tragedy," Putin said.

Then Russia's state television was wheeled out to float theories as to who, other than the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, was responsible.

All the televised fingers pointed to Kyiv.

The Russian deputy minister even popped up to say the Ukrainian government had no fewer than 10 questions to answer about the tragedy. Russia, apparently, had none.

'Plausible deniability'

Russia called for the creation of an international commission to investigate the incident.

But it was silent as the pro-Russian separatists blocked access to the crash site, prompting accusations from Kyiv that the insurgents were removing traces that might link them to the downing of the passenger jet.

All of this would seem to indicate that the Kremlin has decided on the policy of "plausible deniability," that fascinating term coined by the CIA 50 years ago that seeks to deploy deliberate obfuscation about nasty acts to protect political leaders.

Russia's President Vladmir Putin visited the Trinity Lavra monastery in Sergeiv Posad outside Moscow on Friday, according to the Kremlin, which published this photo. (Kremlin / Reuters)

Under this cloak, Putin says that the pro-Russian separatists are autonomous and receiving no help from Russia, despite the fact that the so-called People's Republic of Donetsk has a press office in Moscow and its leaders were mentored by the 39-year-old Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, who is in regular contact with the head of Putin’s presidential administration.

Plausible deniability works, until it doesn't. Recent history is littered with examples of its failure, starting with Richard Nixon's dismissal of any knowledge of a crummy break-in at the Democratic party headquarters in the Watergate apartments in Washington.

Two years later, his defence having unravelled and under threat of impeachment, he had to resign.

Putin will be far more sensitive to two other examples closer to home. Like Putin, Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic encouraged Serbian militias and Bosnian Serb forces to rampage in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s, raping and killing.

The goal was to create a Greater Serbia. The result was a broken Yugoslavia, a shrunken Serbia and Milosevic in jail and on trial for war crimes at The Hague.

To the day of his death in jail, Milosevic always denied he had directed the war strategy of the militias and, in the interests of plausible deniability, he made sure there was almost no paper trail. It didn't save him from disgrace.

Right on Putin's doorstep, so to speak, is a slightly different kind of example in Mikhail Gorbachev. On Jan. 13, 1991, Soviet KGB and Interior Ministry troops attacked the Lithuanian television centre in Vilnius, killing 13 people.

This was an attempt to throttle Baltic nationalism and keep the three Baltic republics in the crumbling Soviet Union. It was quickly dubbed Bloody Sunday.

Gorbachev’s reaction was to hide. For 12 hours the Lithuanian leader couldn't reach him by phone.

When he surfaced the next day, Gorbachev said he hadn't been told in advance of the attack.

This was deniability verging on the implausible. Even his aides were shocked that he had said that.

Ten days on he made a televised speech dissociating the Kremlin leadership from the murderous attack.

The message was clear: Gorbachev didn't have the stomach to shed blood to keep the Soviet Union together by force. Eleven months later it lay in 15 pieces and Gorbachev was booted out of the Kremlin.

Brazenly Napoleonic

Putin loathes Gorbachev and what he sees as his weakness. The Russian president sees it as his mission to restore as much of "Russian space" as he can.

The occupation of parts of Georgia in 2008 was a first step. Crimea was the next. "New Russia," the old Czarist term for Eastern Ukraine which Putin resurrected in the spring, looked to be the third.

But now the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines jet has radically altered the chess board.

The Kremlin's newest defence seems to be a variation of its existing strategy — both plausible deniability and Napoleonic brazenness.

It worked for the French dictator. Two months after the murder of the Duke of Enghien, Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor Napoleon I. He carried on his murderous invasions and wars for almost 11 more years.

A woman signs the register at Saint Catherine Church in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, on Friday in memory of the nearly 300 people who lost their lives when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down. Almost half those on board were Dutch, and many there have been taking out their anger at Russia. (Reuters)

But the duke's murder hardened the anti-Napoleon coalition, led by threatened royal houses, in other countries, and they finally felled Napoleon at Waterloo.

Still, Napoleon continues to be admired by the French as one of their great men, to the stupefaction of other Europeans whose countries his armies trampled.

Eleven more years and the esteem of future generations of his country's citizens. Putin might be satisfied with that. But can the rest of the world live with those ambitions?


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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