The immediate cause of the MH17 disaster was a missile shot by pro-Russian forces who mistook it for one of the military aircraft they had been regularly shooting down. It is a terrible tragedy – and tragically not unique. There have been several such events in my lifetime, including the USS Vincennes incident and the Soviet downing of a Korean airliner.
The problem is that Vladimir Putin has revived the Soviet cult of perfectionism – the idea that the state simply cannot make a mistake. That Putin-backed forces could commit an error is therefore unthinkable, as that would imply that Putin made an error in backing and supplying them. Putin cannot make errors. We have therefore seen a stream of desperate propaganda stories emanating from the Russian media, such as the allegation that it was the government in Kiev attempting to shoot down Putin himself. These narratives are aimed at the domestic Russian nationalist audience, but are accepted by the small band of ardent Putin supporters in the West.
Many people in the West, myself included, have been shocked and alienated by the rampant and vicious immorality of Western foreign policy in what I might call the neo-con era, with the ascendancy of Bush and Blair marking a step change in the open use of military force to grab natural resources – a return to the Imperial heyday. The veneer of concern for democracy and human rights layered over Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, the curtailment of long-cherished civil rights at home and the mass compound crimes of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, led to a visceral revulsion.
Putin’s successful opposition to western designs on Syria and Iran gave the impression, quite probably correctly, that a revived Russia was the only effective obstacle to western hegemony, China being passive. But unfortunately this led some who opposed Western neo-imperialism to join in the hero worship of Putin.
The mechanisms of this vary. In my view, the largest number are people who are not psychologically equipped to fight over-mighty power everywhere, which is a lonely path, and prefer the much easier option of joining the entourage of a big power, and convincing themselves that power is good. It is comforting to feel part of a powerful team. Some of course are paid by the Russians, and you see them turning up on Russia Today both as presenters and interviewees, but these are a small section. Some were supporters of the Soviet Union.
What is perhaps most extraordinary is that, the very things which these people criticise most about Western society, Russia and Putin do much worse. At the most fundamental level, the disparity of wealth between rich and poor in Russia is far, far worse than the still appalling level it has reached in the West.
The total Russian economy is 20% smaller than the total British economy. Yet Russia has almost three times as many billionaires as the UK, and the Russian billionaires’ combined wealth is over six times the combined wealth of British billionaires.
Go figure. Yet the delusional continue to contrive to believe that Russia is an alternative to global capitalism.
Russia is not only a much more unequal society than the West. It also much worse in the field of civil liberties and media freedom. Scores of real journalists have been killed, mostly unheard of internationally. The free media has vanished. In the West, the field of opinion reflected in the mainstream media has narrowed right down. In the UK, Andrew Gilligan was sacked for telling the truth about Iraqi WMD, while his source was murdered. But the West is moving in the direction of autocracy; Russia is already there. It in no sense represents an alternative, freer society than the West.
Nor is Russia any less imperialist. Putin is in fact an extremely aggressive nationalist imperialist, as his annexations of Abkhazia and Crimea have shown. Highly significant is the legislation just passed to award Russian nationality to ethnic Russians in former Soviet states. That is racially based legislation. It means for example that 40% of the population of Kazakhstan potentially become Russian citizens, with similar figures in the Baltic states. It is highly aggressive and designed to have destabilising potential.
One fact which has become undeniably clear in the Ukraine is that the pro-Russian insurgency in the East is commanded by members of the Russian military and security forces like Strelkov who are Russian, not Ukrainian citizens, and they are under tactical and strategic supervision from Russia. Again, the self-hating fantasist tendency in the West manage to convince themselves that what is happening in East Ukraine is massive destruction of civilian populations by NATO forces.
People who are that removed from reality cannot be helped.
Much more dangerous are those who do have a grip on reality, who understand exactly what is really happening, and who don’t care. That sums up the position of almost all western governments. The truth is that the financial interests of all those Russian billionaires are completely linked in with those of the super-rich of the West. To take only the UK as an example, these are the people Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Boris Johnson lunch and have holidays with. These are the people who employ Gerhard Schroeder and David Owen as lapdogs.
Nobody is more annoyed than Angela Merkel at the downing of MH17, not because she cares about those dead people, but because of the massive effort she has put into ensuring that, whatever Russia does in Ukraine, German economic interests will not be affected. Germany gets most of its electricity from Russian gas, and both Siemens and Mercedes, on a daily basis, have been lobbying Merkel to make sure that nothing is done that hurts German economic interests. Cameron has been receiving the same lobbying from his banker mates. In both these cases, the politicians are being talked to by the people who finance them.
The result is that there has been a strong diplomatic push, particularly by Germany, to divert the question of sanctions on to matters of process. The problem is not Russia trying to annex bits of Ukraine and funding, arming and staffing the destabilisation of a European state. The Germans are seeking to define the problem down to whether or not Russia cooperates in various stages of the air crash investigation.
Putin will continue his dangerous expansionist nationalism because it is a self-trapping path for a politician to take; but also he is encouraged that whatever he does, nobody makes any serious moves to stop him. The people on MH17 were killed because of the pusillanimity of Western politicians, financed and guided by the financial elite.
The pathetic “sanctions” adopted by the US and EU so far have been specifically designed to be completely toothless. They target middle and lower ranking individuals without major western links anyway. None of the top ten largest Russian billionaires has been touched.
Russia’s richest man – Alisher Usmanov – is extremely close to Putin and as chairman of Gazprominvestholdings has been directly involved for a decade in pressurising Ukraine, and was also Putin’s chosen instrument for closing down the free media. But you won’t see Usmanov on any sanctions list – he has 10% of Facebook, 29% of Arsenal FC, the most expensive mansion in Surrey and numerous other western connections, not to mention he is Gerhard Schroeder and David Owen’s direct boss.
Much has been said of the 1.2 billion dollars contract for two amphibious assault vessels Russia has ordered from France. Amphibious assault! Where?
But, actually much more interesting, 1.2 billion dollars incredibly happens to be the combined value of four of the World’s largest luxury yachts, which met together off Cap Ferrat and Antibes from 10 to 16 June this year. They are Dilbar, Madame Gu, Grand Bleu and Hermitage.
In Putin’s Russia, government, organised crime and secret services are absolutely integrated. All were well represented at the series of meetings that took place on those yachts, where deals were done on everything from metal prices to heroin – and Ukraine. If US drones had wanted to do some good in the world, there was their target, but they were too busy killing some 16 year old kid, and numerous bystanders, in Waziristan or Yemen for a dangerous interpretation of the Koran. None of the people at those meetings will appear on any sanctions list, though they are the men who rule Russia with Putin. They will all still be very welcome in boardrooms in London, Berlin and New York.
If Europe had followed from the start the excellent leadership offered by Radek Sikorski, the passengers on MH17 would not have died. I should like to think that the European Council will start to listen to Sikorski now. But I doubt it.