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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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