The tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, almost certainly shot down by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, has taken the conflict in that region to a new level, making starkly obvious its potential to affect the world. But it also underscores the extent to which the drama between Russia and Ukraine has been a self-inflicted disaster for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It's useful to recall that this crisis began in the fall, when Putin arm-twisted then-Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych into ditching a major trade deal with the European Union in order to bring Ukraine into a Russian-led economic alliance. Yanukovych had won the 2010 presidential election by shedding his earlier image as the Kremlin's man in Kiev and reinventing himself as a centrist who would pursue integration with western Europe while preserving close ties to Russia. His decision to go back on the EU deal sparked anger that led to mass protests. Putin put more pressure on Yanukovych -- this time, to use force against protesters. The violence escalated into pitched street battles that led to Yanukovych's flight from the capital and a parliamentary vote to oust him.
Putin's response was a strategy of barely disguised intervention in Ukraine -- starting with Crimea, where Kremlin-aided separatists engineered a referendum that set the stage for Russia to annex the peninsula. Crimea's homecoming was treated as a national triumph, and for a moment it looked like Putin had snatched the proverbial victory from the jaws of defeat.
But the strategy of encouraging separatism in eastern Ukraine turned out to be far more perilous. In Crimea, it seems likely that most of the population genuinely wanted to become part of Russia (however rigged the referendum may have been). That's not the case in eastern Ukraine, despite a large ethnic Russian population. A Pew Research Center poll in May found that only 18 percent of the region's residents, and just over a quarter of the Russian speakers, would support secession. Few locals have enlisted to fight for the pro-Russian separatists. Many if not most of their leaders are citizens of Russia -- often with Russian "special services" ties, such as ex-intelligence officer Igor Girkin, now commander of the rebel forces. Disturbingly, their ranks also include quite a few Russian ultranationalists and even neo-fascists.
These are the people the Kremlin has backed, both (almost certainly) with men and weapons as well as with a propaganda war. These tactics have backfired: with nearly 300 bodies, mostly of Europeans and Malaysians, strewn across a field in eastern Ukraine.
Putin finds himself with few good options. The rebels he can't fully control are getting him branded a murderer. His Russian billionaire friends, hurting from Western sanctions, are reportedly pushing him to de-escalate the situation -- which would require cutting loose the Ukrainian insurgents. But that would be a major humiliation, in his eyes and the eyes of supporters who see him as restoring Russian greatness. Even Crimea may be a dubious consolation prize once the early euphoria fades: Russian business newspapers have reported that it's becoming a huge financial sinkhole, draining the government's pension funds.
Some Russian dissenters have been recalling the 1983 Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 -- followed, eight years later, by the fall of the Soviet regime. Of course, there is no direct link between the two, and there were many other factors involved in the collapse of the Soviet empire; but still, could this be the beginning of the end of Putin's neo-authoritarian Russian state? Much depends on whether the West has the resolve to keep up the pressure on the Kremlin. The victims of Flight 17 should bolster that resolve.