MH17 downing underscores world's dilemma of how to deal with Putin | South China Morning Post
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MH17 downing underscores world's dilemma of how to deal with Putin

Paul Letters says the international response to Russia's role in the downing of MH17 - and the larger Ukraine conflict - has been understandably muddled, given the varying national priorities

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 4:47pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 4:09am

I was in Kuala Lumpur last weekend, where flags flew at half mast for the victims of flight MH17 and the key terms in the media coverage seemed to be "outrage" and "damning". The front page of Malaysia's The Star newspaper, for example, emphasised outrage from various world leaders - but exactly which leaders are the most outraged depends on each country's political biases and economic priorities.

One hundred and ninety-three lives have weighed heavily on the mind of Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, yet he refused to rush to join the anti-Russian condemnation issuing from the Obama administration. Rutte emphasised that there was much about the tragedy that we couldn't be sure of. This may be sensibly circumspect, or it may reflect the fact that business with Moscow is booming: Russia is the Netherlands' third-largest trade partner.

Rutte did, however, say that he would personally ensure the culprits are found and brought to justice. This gains him political ground in his own country without upsetting the Russians.

Tony Abbott, the prime minister of the nation which suffered the third-highest death toll (after the Netherlands and Malaysia), said, with unexpected understatement: "Australia takes a very dim view of countries which facilitate the killing of Australians." Later, more typical comments that described Russian behaviour in the Ukraine crisis as "outrageous" provoked stiff condemnation from Moscow. Abbott can afford to talk tough: Russia is not a major trade partner for Australia.

Straight off the bat last weekend, before US Secretary of State John Kerry provided any detail to begin to back up his accusations, Malaysia's New Sunday Times saw no reason to pussyfoot around the Great Bear. They accepted the United States' "damning assertion" of where the blame lay. Pro-Russian separatists launched the missile, the newspaper declared, leaving little doubt that they were "abetted by the Russians under the aegis of Vladimir Putin".

The response from the Malaysian media must not be taken to represent Malaysia officially. Tragically, the government has too much recent experience of handling airline tragedies. Whereas it took Prime Minister Najib Razak a week to make a public statement about MH370 in March, this time, he appeared on Malaysian TV within hours. His comments echoed those of his transport minister, Liow Tiong Lai, who used the phrase "outrage against human decency".

In reality, not all of the world wants to push Putin too far. Putin is the ultimate opportunist and will play this situation as such. Should he concede it was the rebels' fault, he will present Russia as saving the situation - for domestic consumption, at least. Russia's boldness throughout the Ukraine crisis has been a reaction to Kiev's tilting towards the West.

Devolution for east Ukraine will be the likely result and is probably exactly what the Russian leader hoped to achieve from the outset. Under Putin, Russia doesn't look much like the has-been power we have been told it is.

The Obama administration insists what happened to MH17 should be a wake-up call for Europe's approach to Russia over the Ukraine conflict. But it's hard to see how Putin and his cronies could be hurt in any substantial way. The US would like to see EU sanctions involve a reduction in the level of natural resources imported from Russia - which supplies 30 per cent of the gas Europe uses. It's easy to see why many EU leaders have been so diplomatic: in many cases, including the Netherlands, mainland European nations are increasing their dependence on Russian resources. What's more, they fear retaliatory sanctions.

The US is pushing for tougher economic measures against Russia, taking the apparent moral high ground - but America doesn't have the trade relationship with Russia that continental European nations, such as Germany, have.

British Prime Minister David Cameron's tough posturing against Russia entails criticising fellow EU members - which plays to his domestic audience - for being too soft for too long. Cameron gets low marks for speaking out against China's human rights record or standing up to Israel over the horrors in Gaza because, in these examples, British political and economic interests dictate London's near silence. To be fair, UK businesses (Russia is a major buyer of British cars and financial services) may suffer through retaliatory sanctions from Moscow. And oil giant BP has a significant stake in Russian energy - but Britain has less to lose than the gas-dependent European states.

The US perhaps has even less to lose, given that its relations with Russia are already so low. President Barack Obama must be considering this as an opportunity to fast-track Ukraine into Nato - thereby strengthening the neo-iron curtain. But little has been said publicly: Obama is too wary of feeding Putin's fire. Putin has used the threat of Nato encroachment to rally support for his bold nationalist agenda.

Around 2008, the US considered smoothing the path for Nato membership for Ukraine, together with Georgia. European states, dependent on Russian resources, were less keen: the plan was put on the back burner. In this area, Ukrainian public opinion - which surveys suggest has recently moved to a majority in favour of joining Nato - plays little part in the nation's destiny.

Obama has been clear that US military involvement in Ukraine is not on the table, and he is also cautious regarding the provision of arms. Senior Republican Senator John McCain did suggest the US should supply the Ukrainians with military aid if Russian involvement in the downing of MH17 is proved. Although his suggestion is a reasonable one, McCain has greater freedom to speak his mind, and to tread all over Russian sensibilities, because he's not a world leader.

Since March's MH370 tragedy, Malaysian observers see their own country's standing as rising in the eyes of the world's powers. They point to Obama's post-MH370 visit to their country, and, after a knee-jerk reaction of condemnation of the Malaysian authorities in the early weeks, Beijing is seen as toning down - if not retracting - its rhetoric out of respect for relations with Malaysia.

This time, the focus of criticism falls not on Malaysian authorities but Russian: in what terms they should be condemned depends on who you ask.

Paul Letters is a political commentator and writer. See paulletters.com

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