“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,” Alec Luhn of Foreign Policy writes.
Russian-backed separatists are suspected of shooting down Malaysia Flight MH17 on July 17, killing all 298 people on board. Moscow has continued supporting the rebels, many of whom are Russian, since the incident.
Luhn explains that Putin has to make a move, and the former KGB lieutenant colonel has two unappealing choices: continue backing pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with weapons and training, thereby incurring biting sanctions from the West, or back down after investing so much political capital (at home and internationally) in the idea of re-establishing Novorussia in eastern Ukraine.
“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,” Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, told FP.
Timothy Heritage of Reuters notes that Putin may have already crossed the rubicon after he blamed MH17 “on his pro-Western protagonists in Kiev and signaled no change in his stance, leaving Russia facing the threat of much tougher international sanctions and economic and political isolation.”
In any case, Moscow’s men on the ground are struggling. Ukrainian troops have recently retaken a lot of territory from the separatists, suggesting that Moscow would have to make a decision to fully back the separatists or even invade with the estimated 15,000 Russian troops stationed at the border. (Some of those troops have been firing grad rockets into Ukraine.)
Luhn notes that the Russian media has convinced much of the Russian population that backing the separatists is the way to go.
“We shouldn’t depend on Putin’s vacillation,” Alexander Dugin, a philosophy professor who has called on Russia to seize Ukraine, wrote on his Facebook page last week. “He vacillates, but the Russian people do not. He drags out the decision, but the Russian people have already made it. Novorossiya will exist.”
That remains to be seen, and depends on whether the Russian leader continues to double down or backs off.
“No matter which way he moves, Putin can only lose,” Luhn concludes.
But in life, as in chess, a move must be made.
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