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What Europe Still Doesn't Understand About Vladimir Putin

The downing of Malaysia Airlines' flight MH17 may change Putin's hand in eastern Ukraine, but a weak and divided Europe is still no match for the well-armed Russian poker player.

A memorial at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport
A memorial at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport
Andrzej Lubowski

KIEV — On September 1, 1983, a Soviet su-15 shot down Korean Airlines flight 007, with 269 passengers aboard. At first, Moscow denied any involvement with downing of the New York-to-Seoul 747 jet, despite the fact that Gennadi Osipovich, the Soviet pilot, received the clear order to pull the trigger.

The Politburo eventually acknowledged its responsibility shooting down the aircraft, though it claimed the flight had been an open provocation from the U.S., as it had entered restricted Soviet airspace. All investigation data were passed on to the International Civil Aviation Organization, yet only after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

What new and vital information could we now get from the black boxes of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which crashed on July 17 in eastern Ukraine? Which wing fell down first, and where exactly did the presumed rocket hit?

All the speculation about whether pro-Russian separatists were competent enough to handle a BUK rocket launcher are only here to fill up the airtime. Let's be serious for a moment: these rebels that Ukraine forces are fighting in the eastern region of the country aren't just some militia — they're organized troops led by former or current Russian officers. They're trained, experienced and equipped by the Kremlin.

Putin is laughing out loud

Future conflicts and misfortunes will soon overshadow the MH17 tragedy. Matters will get back on old tracks. U.S. sanctions will only be a pinch to the Russian economy, as long as the European Union continues dragging its feet.

If even a brutal aggression doesn't stop France from supplying Russia with modern weapons; if the CEO of Siemens can't restrain himself from visiting Vladimir Putin's dacha, doesn't it mean that Europe lacks character, political will and imagination?

Russia's ruler is laughing out loud at the European impotence.

While the EU was immersed in endless talks on possible loans to Ukraine, Putin gave a generous hand to Viktor Yanukovych. The Russian president conquered Crimea after not foreseeing that Ukraine's pro-Russian regime would fall apart so quickly.

Putin, obviously, prefers to be seen as a man of state rather than a liar or a criminal. He won't hesitate to pay what's needed for good press. Releasing from prison Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the members of the Pussy Riot punk trio, along with the $50 billion devoted to this-year Olympic games, were only parts of Putin's political strategy.

The man is not a chess player. He prefers poker and always keeps a cocked gun under the table. He bet well on Europe's passiveness and has only gained confidence over the last few weeks.

Are they fools?

The world swallowed the annexion of Crimea with no more than a hiccup. The United States, at the time, was rather preoccupied with the Middle East, and the only thing Europe could get excited about was the World Cup.

The day following the MH17 crash, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Der Spiegel that the causes for the tragedy were still unknown. He also added that the possibility of further escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine wasn't excluded.

An assistant to Germany's former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Steinmeier continues the pro-Russia politics of his onetime boss. Schröder, who ruled Germany from 1998 to 2005, is now the chairman of Nord Stream AG's board — a consortium building the submarine gas pipeline between his country and Russia.

What's happening in the east of Ukraine is an important expression of Russian politics. That means it will last not weeks, but months or even years. Germany and France are too naïve — or just plain fools — if they think they can convince Putin to abandon eastern Ukraine. Maybe Berlin would show more courage and German corporations would stop running to the Kremlin for new contracts, if MH17 had been a Lufthansa flight.

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Image of Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaking during a press conference in Buenos Aires on Jan 14, 2023

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Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
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