Staunton, November 7 – Just as Vladimir Putin used the apartment bombings in Russian cities in 1999 to restart the Chechen war and bring himself to power, so too, again needing a war to keep his position, the Kremlin leader will exploit the terrorist plane bombing to expand Russia’s presence abroad and isolate Ukraine, according to Andrey Piontkovsky.
The Russian commentator says that the threat now facing Ukraine is not an escalation of the fighting in the Donbass – Putin knows what that would mean and he is focusing on the Middle East – but rather the certainty that the Russian leader will use the terrorist act to cause the West to back off from its support of Kyiv.
In the first instance, Piontkovsky says, Putin will “seek to use the airliner catastrophe as the occasion for a sharp increase of Russia’s military presence in the Middle East.” And he will follow the same script he did 16 years ago.
“In September 1999, it was simply not possible to begin a war in Chechnya which brought Putin to power,” the Russian analyst continues. “The memory of the first Chechen war was too great.” And consequently, Putin exploited – and in the view of many, although Piontkovsky does not take a position on this orchestrated – the apartment bombings.
Now, once again, Putin “needs a war in order to hold on to power, and the terrorist act in the Sinai gives him the chance to intensify military hysteria and thereby remove from society any brakes” on his actions. That logic points to a rapid expansion in Russia’s military presence in the Middle East.
It might seem that “Ukraine should only breathe a sigh of relief in connection with such a turn of events,” Piontkovsky says, but that is absolutely incorrect. That is because Putin will seek to sell Russia’s expanded military action in the Middle East as “his service to the West” and demand the West recognize Ukraine as part of Russia’s sphere of influence and end sanctions.
Putin will make the following argument to the US and the EU: You may be afraid of fighting ISIS in a serious way by sending land forces, but I am not, even if it costs many Russian lives. And because I will, the Kremlin leader will argue, you should lift sanctions and “in general weaken your support for Ukraine.”
Many in Western capitals will find that a powerful argument, Piontkovsky says, and thus Putin’s plans “represent a definite danger for Ukraine.” Indeed, if Putin really starts a war against ISIS, that could lead to Putin’s return to “the club of the big bosses” and even a new Yalta or Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
But Putin has not thought this all the way through, the Russian analyst argues. More than 220 Russian casualties have already come home in coffins, and the Kremlin leader has made the Sunni Muslim world his enemy by his support for the Shiites of Syria and Iran. Consequently, even if he “wins” in his gamble to get support from the West on Ukraine, he will lose in the longer term.
Putin knows that “Russians will die for his lifetime personal power” if they think they are fighting against those who have killed Russians. But ultimately, neither he nor they can win against the Sunni radicals; and ISIS will eventually “accept the capitulation of Putin on more severe conditions than did [Chechnya’s] Kadyrov.”