Putin Inadvertently Distances Himself From Ukraine Rebels He's Been Backing

MOSCOW, Russia -- President Vladimir Putin appears to be inadvertently distancing himself from the actions of eastern Ukrainian separatists as his government faces increasing criticism over the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on Thursday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described Putin as out of touch with reality and "in another world."

Putin's comments to Russia Today — the first he's made publicly since the crash — largely sidestepped questions about whether rebels used Russia-provided weapons or training to shoot down MH17.

Putin instead called for an open investigation into the crash.

"We must do everything to provide security for the international experts on the site of the tragedy," Putin said.

"In the meantime, nobody should and has no right to use this tragedy to achieve their narrowly selfish political goals."

But recent reports showed that Ukrainian rebels spent much of the weekend blocking access to the crash site — the direct opposite of the open investigation Putin is calling for.

Following Putin's comments, some reports indicate the rebels will now cooperate with the international community.

That Putin is calling for an open investigation while Russia-backed rebels are stifling one is yet another sign that Russia's involvement in the Ukraine crisis may well have backfired, at least in the country's east.

Joshua Rovner, the John Goodwin Tower Chair in International Politics and National Security at Southern Methodist University, summarized the situation for The Washington Post's Monkey Cage.

Much as Pakistan in several instances lost control of the militants it cultivated in India, Kashmir, and Afghanistan, Russia may be losing control of the situation in Ukraine.

Russia is also suffering for its intervention-by-proxy in Ukraine.

Its economy has been in deep distress since the annexation of Crimea this spring, with tens of billions of dollars exiting the country during a stock market and currency crisis.

U.S.-led sanctions have worsened Russia’s economic outlook, as investors fear returning to a country that increasingly looks like an international pariah.

Washington announced tougher sanctions the day before the MH17 went down, and it is now likely that these will remain in place indefinitely.

The Obama administration may go further still by enacting industry-wide sanctions, a serious escalation that it has so far avoided.

This is what President Barack Obama's Russia strategy may have gambled on.

Vox's Max Fisher previously explained the idea, "Russian President Vladimir Putin has over-reached in Ukraine, creating problems for himself so bad that they may force him down as or more effectively than plausible American actions alone might have (although they helped)."

"Putin is hanging himself by his own rope."

Even before the MH17 crash, the international community had taken steps to isolate Putin and Russia.

President Obama on Monday also called on Putin and the Russian government to take control of the situation and stop rebels from tampering with evidence at the crash site.

An open letter from a grieving Dutch father — many of the victims were from the Netherlands — called out Putin and other possible suspects of the MH17 shoot down.

"Thank you very much mister Putin, leaders of the separatists, or the Ukraine government! For murdering my loved and only child, Elsemiek de Borst! Hans de Borst wrote.

"But suddenly she is not here anymore! She has been shot out of the sky, in an unknown country, where there is a war going on!"

Putin is often framed by supporters and even critics as a strategic mastermind.

But the developing narrative and the contradiction between Putin's comments and the rebels' actions suggest that, while Putin may talk a big game, the crisis in Ukraine may have run ahead of what the Russian leader expected.

What is Putin trying to accomplish?

There are three different ways to think about President Vladimir Putin's decision to annex the Ukrainian region of Crimea, to mass Russian troops along Ukraine's eastern border, and to not-so-subtly suggest he would consider invading.

There's probably some truth to all three.

1) He wants to stir up nationalism at home for political purposes Putin's popularity has been skyrocketing at home over his handling of the crisis, promoting lots of Russian nationalism and strengthening his hold on power.

That's something Putin has been struggling to do since the 2012 presidential election, which he won under widespread accusations of fraud and mass protests.

Since the crisis began, Putin has also been cracking down severely on dissent within Russia, something it's easier to get away with while the world is distracted by Ukraine.

2) He saw an opportunity to grab territory and influence for strategic purposes Russia does have a big naval base on Crimea, which it sees as strategically essential to projecting Russian power into the Black and Mediterranean Seas.

As Ukraine's crisis created chaos across the country and especially in Crimea (perhaps helped along by right-wing pro-Russian groups backed by Moscow), Putin saw a chance to quietly seize Crimea on the pretense of protecting it from that chaos and serving the wishes of Crimeans to rejoin Russia.

This same opportunism could apply for the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine: maybe he wants to invade to annex the territory and maybe he's just bluffing to force Ukraine to adopt a federal system, but either outcome could be about bossing Russian influence.

3) He earnestly believes he is saving fellow Russian-speakers from a Western conspiracy.

It's entirely possible that Putin believes his own rhetoric, which says that Crimeans were calling to be saved by Russian military intervention, that the Ukrainian government has been seized by far-right fanatics backed by the West, and that Moscow's political authority extends beyond Russia's borders to all Russian-speakers everywhere, including in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine.

After speaking with Putin in early March, Chancellor Angela Merkel described him as out of touch with reality and "in another world."

Source: Vox