Sat, Jul 26, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Relentless Putin risks reaching tipping point akin to Ogarkov’s

Russia’s actions involving Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 echo 1983’s Korean Air Lines Flight 007 and could prove a step too far for the Russia leader

By Nina Khrushcheva

When incompetence in the Kremlin turns murderous, its incumbents can begin to tremble. As news of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine trickled into Russia, people with a long memory recalled the Soviet Union’s attack, 31 years ago this September, on Korean Air Lines Flight 007, and its political consequences.

Back then, the Kremlin first lied to the world by saying that it had nothing to do with the missing KAL plane. Later it claimed that the South Korean jet was on an American spy mission. However, within the Soviet leadership, the incident was a tipping point. It ended the career of Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, Chief of the General Staff and a hardliner of the hardest sort, whose inconsistent and unconvincing efforts to justify the downing of the plane proved deeply embarrassing to the Kremlin.

Ogarkov’s ineptness (and inept mendacity), together with the mounting failure, since 1979, of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, exposed the system’s advanced decrepitude. The stagnation that had begun during Leonid Brezhnev’s rule deepened after his death in 1982. His successors, first the KGB’s Yuri Andropov and then the Communist Party Central Committee’s Konstantin Chernenko, not only had one foot in the grave when they came to power, but were also completely unequipped to reform the Soviet Union.

The huge loss of life in Afghanistan (equal to the US’s losses in Vietnam, but in a far shorter time period) already suggested to many that the Kremlin was becoming a danger to itself; the attack on a civilian airliner seemed to confirm that emerging view. It was this realization that spurred Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power, as well as support among the leadership for Gorbachev’s reformist policies of perestroika and glasnost.

Of course, history is not destiny, but one can be sure that at least some in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entourage, if not Putin himself, have been thinking about Ogarkov’s failure and its impact on the Soviet elite. After all, Kremlin leaders, Putin included, define themselves through what was, not what could be.

Indeed, Putin’s rationale for annexing Crimea closely resembles Brezhnev’s reasoning for invading Afghanistan: to confound enemies seeking to surround the country. In 2004, speaking to Russian veterans about the Afghan invasion, Putin explained that there were legitimate geopolitical reasons to protect the Soviet Central Asian border, just as in March he cited security concerns to justify his Ukrainian land grab.

In the Brezhnev era, expansionist policies reflected the country’s new energy-derived wealth. Putin’s military build-up and modernization of the past decade was also fueled by energy exports. However, Russia’s latest energy windfall has masked Putin’s incompetent economic management with growth and government revenues, now entirely reliant on the hydrocarbons sector.

Moreover, Putin’s incompetence extends far beyond the economy. His security forces remain brutal and unaccountable; in some parts of the country they have merged with criminal gangs. His managed judiciary provides no comfort to ordinary people; and the country’s military installations, submarines, oilrigs, mining shafts, hospitals, and retirement homes regularly blow up, collapse, or sink, owing to neglect and zero liability.

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