TIME russia

Putin’s Popularity Soars to 87% in the Face of Adversity

Vladimir Putin
President Vladimir Putin speaks at the opening ceremony of the monument to the Heroes of the World War I in Moscow on Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. Yuri Kochetkov—AP

A new survey claims Russians are more than happy with their controversial strongman at the helm

Russian President Vladimir Putin has enmeshed his nation in civil war in Ukraine, faces international sanctions for allegedly contributing to the downing of a commercial airliner last month, and has been targeted by a fresh round of financial sanctions from the West. But Russia loves him all the same.

In fact, his popularity among his fellow countrymen appears to grow with each new controversy.

A new poll released this week by the Levada Center reports that the Russian President currently enjoys an approval rating of 87% — a 4-point jump since a similar survey was completed in May, according to the Moscow Times.

Meanwhile in the U.S., where the economy is bouncing back and the White House has largely retreated from militaristic interventions abroad, President Barack Obama’s approval rating sagged to 40% this week — its lowest point to date.

TIME russia

WATCH: Bird Launches Airstrike on Putin’s Shoulder (UPDATED)

No word on whether the bird was from Ukraine

Correction appended

A video shared online made it seem as if Vladimir Putin got some unwelcome love from a feathered friend Sunday during a speech unveiling a monument to Russians who served in World War I.

Putin was speaking about the sacrifice made by Russian soldiers in World War I, linking the Great War to his own current political troubles. “This tragedy reminds us what happens when aggression, selfishness and the unbridled ambitions of national leaders and political establishments push common sense aside, so that instead of preserving the world’s most prosperous continent, Europe, they lead it towards danger,” he said. “It is worth remembering this today.”

Correction: Reporting by The Independent reveals this video to have been falsely doctored to show a bird defecating on Putin.

TIME

Obama: ‘We Tortured Some Folks’

US President Barack Obama makes a statement while at the White House in Washington
President Barack Obama makes a statement while at the White House in Washington on Aug. 1, 2014. Larry Downing—Reuters

On Friday, the President offered his frankest admission of post-9/11 interrogation tactics, condemned Hamas for breaking the cease-fire and criticized House Republicans

On Friday, President Barack Obama previewed the upcoming release of a Senate report into the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation after the attacks of September 11, 2001, saying “we tortured some folks.”

Speaking to reporters from the White House, he said, “Even before I came into office, I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong,” Obama said. “We crossed a line and that needs to be understood and accepted. We have to as a country take responsibility for that.”

At the briefing, Obama also condemned Hamas for breaching a cease-fire with Israel minutes after it went into effect Friday morning, saying the breach makes it more difficult to end the weeks-long conflict in Gaza. he said Hamas must immediately release captured Israeli solider Hadar Goldin, who was taken on the Israel-Gaza border in a Friday morning attack that killed two other Israeli soldiers. “If they are serious about resolving this situation, that soldier needs to be released unconditionally as soon as possible,” Obama said. He added that with the trust broken, “I think it’s going to be very hard to put a cease-fire back together again.”

“The Israelis are entirely right that these tunnel networks need to be dismantled,” Obama said, adding that Israelis should be pursuing ways to do so with fewer civilian casualties.

The president also defended CIA Director John Brennan, who has been caught up in controversy amid revelations that CIA staffers improperly accessed the files of the Senate investigators. “I have full confidence in John Brennan,” Obama said.

Obama also heaped praise on Secretary of State John Kerry for his efforts in negotiating the cease-fire, saying he had been the subject of “unfair criticism” in recent weeks. He also said Israel must do more to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza. “It’s hard to reconcile Israel’s need to defend itself with our concern for civilians in Gaza,” he said.

Obama also defended his handling of the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine, saying the United States has done everything to support the Ukrainian government. “Short of going to war, there are going to be some constraints in terms of what we can do,” he said. Obama said that Russian President Vladimir Putin should want to resolve the situation diplomatically, “but sometimes people don’t always act rationally.”

Before taking questions from reporters, Obama highlighted Friday’s jobs report showing the sixth-consecutive month of 200,000+ job growth and blasted congressional inaction on ambassadorial appointments and dealing with the crisis of unaccompanied minors crossing the southwest border.

“House Republicans as we speak are trying to pass the most extreme and unworkable versions of a bill that they know is going nowhere,” Obama said.

Obama said he would act to shift money around to pay for the care of the unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody because Congress left him no other option.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker of the House John Boehner said Obama has been AWOL on the border crisis. ““When it comes to the humanitarian crisis on our southern border, President Obama has been completely AWOL – in fact, he has made matter worse by flip-flopping on the 2008 law that fueled the crisis. Senate Democrats have left town without acting on his request for a border supplemental. Right now, House Republicans are the only ones still working to address this crisis.”

–with reporting by Justin Worland

TIME foreign affairs

The Upside of Putin’s Warmongering

RUSSIA-UKRAINE-CRISIS-SANCTIONS
Russia's President Vladimir Putin stands in front of the 6 meters long Tsar Pushka (Tsar Cannon), one of the Russian landmarks displayed in the Kremlin in Moscow, on July 31, 2014. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV—AFP/Getty Images

Putin’s madness has created a new Sputnik moment that should spur California into investing in science and math education

Here are two words Californians should say to Vladimir Putin: thank you.

California, with its historic reliance on defense-related industries, never quite recovered from the end of the Cold War. Today, Los Angeles has fewer jobs than it did in 1990. Fortunately, Putin seems intent on giving us a new Cold War.

Let’s stipulate that Putin’s crushing of dissent at home, his seizing of the Crimea, his wars against Ukraine and Georgia, and his bullying of European neighbors are bad for the peace and security of the world. But all this Russian madness—not to mention the threatening, nationalistic expansionism of Putin’s Chinese ally President Xi Jinping—presents an opportunity for California.

The belligerence of Russia and China could boost a host of California industries. Aerospace could benefit from increasing insecurity among Russian and Chinese neighbors, since more countries will be inclined to increase their spending on defense, and to curry favor with Uncle Sam by buying American. California’s space industry could become much more important as the United States moves from collaborating with the Russians in space to competing against them—and against a growing Chinese space program. And Silicon Valley’s data security firms are already booming in part because of widespread concerns about Russian and Chinese hackers, not to mention the intrusive behavior of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The threat of Putinism also could change the politics of oil and natural gas production here—more domestic production serving as another counter to Russia’s oil-based economy. (Maybe we’ll hear politicians from the San Joaquin Valley, where development of the Monterey Shale’s natural gas could be an economic game-changer, accuse fracking opponents of being soft on Russian imperialism.) Alternative energy businesses—from wind to solar to geothermal—should also find it easier to wrap their pitches in national security terms. It’s no longer about merely ending our reliance on Mideast oil, but also about declawing the Russian bear.

California’s softer industries could prosper too. Hollywood, which has struggled to develop compelling bad guys since the end of the Cold War, can mass-produce Russian villains again. As for tourism: With headlines of downed aircraft and bombings everywhere, isn’t it tempting to stay closer to home and go to Disneyland, or check out the minions at Universal Studios?

The big question, of course, is whether our governments, our industries, and our people are still in a position to exploit this moment. The pessimistic view: Our dysfunctional governing system will keep us from seizing the moment. The optimistic: Our persistent economic struggles (at least outside Silicon Valley) and the dangerous provocations of Russia and China might spur us to action.

The promise of this moment may be greatest in the aerospace industry, which is smaller but still cutting-edge, producing drones, satellites for commercial purposes, and space start-ups like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. And there is precedent for revival. After collapsing in the post-Vietnam funk, aerospace rebounded in the ’80s, headlined by the F-117 Stealth aircraft, the B-2 bomber, and the space shuttle. Unfortunately, more recently, as defense spending increased after 9/11 and the industry expanded elsewhere, California aerospace continued its decline.

As important as stopping Putin is stopping Texas or another state from becoming the next California, the place the world turns to in its hour of need. Putin’s pronouncement that he will revive his own aerospace industry, at the same time the Chinese military continues it buildup, should rally us to offense. Putin’s madness has created a new Sputnik moment that should also spur us into investing in science and math education; California needs hundreds of thousands more technically and scientifically skilled workers, for good times and bad.

The state has established a military council and created incentives, but it should go further, and provide seed money to fund business investment and research that serve both national security and the state’s economy. How to pay for it? Why not establish an emergency “Putin tax” on certain items (liquor, cigarettes, oil, and big houses would be fitting) or a “Putin break” from regulations for priority industries?

It’s time for the governor to call a “security council” summit of California officials, business leaders, and scholars. The perfect venue would be Fort Ross State Park, in Sonoma County, site of a settlement established by the Russians in the early 19th Century, with the goal, not yet realized, of colonizing America. It’s a beautiful place, and a powerful reminder that there are few things more enduring than the need to keep Russian czars in their place.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME interactive

How the World Sees America Now

Russia's approval for the United States plummeted in 2014. So did Brazil's. China and France increased in their affection for the country. This map shows the rise and fall in esteem for the United States around the world in recent years

Russians’ disapproval for the United States has hit new lows, according to the latest figures released by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. In 2013, 51 percent of Russians said they had a favorable view of the United States–the fourth straight year that a majority of those polled gave the U.S. a thumbs up. This year, with discord rising between American and Russian leaders, Russian approval of the U.S. plummeted 28 percentage points.

The following interactive allows you to compare any two different years back to 2002 to see how global opinion has changed. Not every country was polled every year.

 

Note: Clicking on the green hyperlinks updates the interactive map in the article.

Following Barack Obama’s election in 2008, many countries saw spikes in favorability toward the United States in 2009, and in many cases those bumps in approval have since waned. Germany greeted the new White House administration with a 33 point bump in approval, for example, but has since dropped 13 points to a 51 percent favorability rating. France and China, meanwhile, has bucked the trend, with growing support for the U.S. since last year.

TIME Ukraine

Who Are the Rebels Controlling Flight MH17’s Crash Site?

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in front of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014.
Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in front of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

The men behind the "Donetsk People's Republic" and other separatist groups

On Monday the two black boxes from flight MH17 were finally handed over to Malaysian experts who had been petitioning for their safe recovery. The black boxes, however, weren’t returned by the Ukrainian government, but by pro-Russian separatists from the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

The handover, attended by international press, did not seem bound by diplomatic protocols. Hulking rebels dressed in camouflage loomed over the diminutive leader of the Malaysian delegation as he addressed the media.

Next to him stood their leader, Alexander Borodai, the self-styled Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, who had negotiated the black boxes’ return with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. During the talks, Borodai had also agreed to transport the bodies of the victims to Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, to be flown out to the Netherlands for identification. He later kept his word.

Self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist "Donetsk People's Republic" Alexander Borodai gives a press conference in Donetsk, on July 19, 2014.
Self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” Alexander Borodai gives a press conference in Donetsk, July 19, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

But what authority did Borodai have to negotiate the terms of the agreement with a world leader? Little more than the authority of the gun. In April, a gang led by Borodai and another rebel, Igor Girkin, declared the eastern province of Donetsk a republic. Girkin, who goes by the moniker “Strelkov” meaning shooter, is Borodai’s right hand man, running the armed forces within the so-called “Republic.” Negotiations between the two prime ministers—legitimate or otherwise—may have been fraught given that Girkin reportedly boasted about shooting down the plane.

Despite their grand claim to have founded a republic, Andrew Weiss, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment, told TIME Borodai and Girkin only control shifting parts of the region, which is also populated by other separatist groups numbering about 5,000 rebels.

The separatists are far from a unified force, says James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House. “They are a series of disparate and only vaguely interconnected groups,” he says. “They’re very disorganized with no real structure or headquarters. Most of the rebels are poorly trained, ill-educated and ignorant of geopolitics.”

Borodai and Girkin however, aren’t everyday thugs like some of their rebel brethren. The pair are both Russian nationals with suspected ties to the Kremlin and experience in separatist conflicts.

Borodai, 41, is rumored to be particularly close to Moscow. In the early 1990s he wrote regularly for the far-right newspaper Zavtra and in 2011 founded the nationalist television channel Den-TV. He confirmed earlier this year that he worked as an adviser to the separatist Prime Minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov. Russia annexed Crimea in March.

Borodai claims he was invited to eastern Ukraine by Girkin, a former Russian security-service officer. Girkin, meanwhile, has alleged he was asked to head the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, though refuses to say by whom. Like Borodai, he also advised separatists in Crimea.

The Russian pair’s group may have staked their claim to the crash site—Iryna Gudyma, a spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who is currently in the area told TIME “we’ve only encountered armed rebels from the Donetsk People’s Republic”—but other rebels are on the scene.

The Wall Street Journal has claimed Cossacks led by commander Nikolai Kozitsin control part of the area where MH17 fell. Unlike Borodai and Girkin, Kozitsin is a Ukrainian who was born in Donetsk. Like them, he has been involved in separatist conflicts in Transnistria and Georgia.

On July 18, the day after the crash, Ukrainian authorities released a transcript of a conversation in which a man they identified as Kozitsin says of MH17: “they shouldn’t be flying. There’s a war going on.” Another transcript implicates Igor Bezler, known to his men as “Bes”, or “devil.” During a call Bezler reportedly told a Russian intelligence officer his men shot down a plane. Bezler’s group currently controls the town of Horlivka in Donetsk province.

But none of the rebel leaders have any overarching authority. “The people who are leaders in east Ukraine are not playing leading roles,” says Sam Greene, director of King’s College London’s Russian Institute. “They hold the de facto power in that part of the Ukraine but that’s all. They don’t have long established electoral legitimacy.” Borodai was only allowed to speak to the Malaysian Prime Minister because his men currently control the area.

Any fleeting power the groups have is considerably bolstered by Russia’s supply of money and weapons into the region, but that may soon cease. “Moscow’s commitment to supporting the rebels is waning, particularly after MH17,” notes Greene. “The costs are becoming too high politically both in terms of sanctions and the damage to Putin’s international reputation.”

And without Russian support, the future of the Donetsk People’s Republic looks decidedly shaky.

TIME Foreign Policy

Russian Television Under Spotlight After Malaysia Airlines Crash in Ukraine

Russia Putin
Employees of RT prepare for a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on June 11, 2013. Yuri Kochetkov—AP

The crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 exposes the truth about RT, the Russian English-language propaganda outlet

In late 2009, the British journalist Sara Firth became a Russian propaganda mouthpiece.

The decision seemed to make sense at the time. Firth had just earned a postgraduate diploma in investigative journalism when she was offered a role as on-air-correspondent for RT, a Russian television network that is broadcast for foreign audiences in English, Spanish and Arabic. The gig came with an attractive salary, vibrant colleagues and the chance to report big stories in global hotspots. Firth had ambition, a sense of adventure, and a fascination with Russia. She took the job.

Founded in 2005, RT is billed as a counterweight to the bias of Western media outlets. In reality, the broadcast outlet is an unofficial house organ for President Vladimir Putin’s government. Under the guise of journalistic inquiry, it produces agitprop funded by the Russian state, and beams it around the world to nearly 650 million people in more than 100 countries. RT is Russia’s “propaganda bullhorn,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said recently, “deployed to promote President Putin’s fantasy about what is playing out on the ground.”

Firth was no dupe. She knew the politics of her paymasters. “We are lying every single day at RT,” she explained Monday afternoon in a phone interview from England. “There are a million different ways to lie, and I really learned that at RT.”

Since a Malaysian jetliner crashed in a wheat field in eastern Ukraine last week, RT’s pro-Putin packaging has been exposed in grim detail. In the aftermath of the tragedy, which killed all 298 souls on board, the outlet—like the rest of Russian state media—has seemed as if it were reporting on an entirely different crime. As the international media published reports indicating the plane was shot down by pro-Russian separatists, RT has suggested Ukraine was responsible, cast Moscow as a scapegoat and bemoaned the insensitivity of outlets focusing on the geopolitical consequences of the crime.

For Firth, the coverage was the last straw. She announced her resignation on July 18, as her employer broadcast a flurry of reports that read more like Kremlin press releases. She described a five-year fight to uphold the principles of journalistic integrity in a place where every reporting assignment comes with a “brief” outlining the story’s conclusion. “It’s mass information manipulation,” she says. “They have a very clear idea in their mind of what they’re trying to prove.”

RT is neither the first nor the only outlet that exists to serve the state rather than its citizens. Nearly every major country has a thriving state-sponsored media. (The U.S. funds media organizations like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia that target foreign populations through the Broadcasting Board of Governors.) In Russia, the domestic media have long been lapdogs, and reporters who bite their masters sometimes turn up dead. “The media in Russia are expected to be mouthpieces for power,” says Sarah Oates, a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland who studies the Russian media. “RT follows this model. They’ll mix a little bit of reality with a little bit of smearing, and they’ll steer the viewer into questioning things.”

RT’s motto is “Question More,” which sounds like a worthy credo. In practice, it arranges those questions to light the way to specific answers. The formula is well-honed. RT hires young, telegenic correspondents who speak fluent English and believe, as Firth does, that a flawed media ecosystem benefits when broadcasters challenge the dominant narrative. And it pays them lavishly to report from far-flung battlefields or its gleaming studios. “They want you to be on air looking young, looking sexy, looking fresh. Being a bit quirky,” says Firth. “They’re after impact. They don’t mind too much about the fact checking.”

In the aftermath of the crash last week, the RT machine kicked into overdrive, churning out a steady stream of strange reports. In an effort to implicitly assign blame on the Ukrainians, it noted the proximity of Putin’s own plane. It quoted a Russian defense ministry source asking why a Ukrainian air force jet was detected nearby. And it quoted another anonymous Russian official, who volunteered the juicy claim that a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile was operational in the vicinity at the time of the incident. This is how RT works, explains Firth: by arranging facts to fit a fantasy.

“What they do is a very smart, slick way of manipulating reality,” she says. “In Ukraine, you’re taking a very small part of a much wider story, totally omitted the context of the story, and so what you wind up with on air is outright misinformation.”

Sometimes the end result is anything but slick. In March, a group of alumni and students from the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kiev, along with associated journalists, launched a fact-checking site to chronicle false reporting about the Ukrainian crisis. The site, Stopfake.org, features a long menu of whoppers from Russian media. Among the most egregious, the group’s founder told TIME, is the case of a blond actress who has cropped up in different roles over the course of conflict. The actress, Maria Tsypko, has been interviewed on state TV and identified as separatist camp organizer in Odessa, a political refugee in Sevastopol and an election monitor in Crimea, according to the site. The only thing that never changes is her affection for Mother Russia.

These outlandish flubs are a problem for the Russian propaganda effort, which forks out millions to cloak spin as truth-telling. It’s hard to maintain the illusion when the audience can see the strings and wires behind the scenes. “It’s been a particularly effective means of propaganda, and a very effective voice for the Russian state,” says Oates. “But if you’re going to engage in propaganda, you have to do it well. They have completely embarrassed themselves.”

RT did not respond to an interview request from TIME. According to Firth, you can reliably glean management’s perspective from the opinions they allow their employees to parrot. Many, Firth says, are like herself: committed journalists who thought they could persevere and take advantage of the opportunity to report important stories, the goals of their bosses notwithstanding.

“For five years, you’re kind of fighting against this—and with your colleagues you’re rolling your eyes and making jokes,” she says. “The worst-kept secret is that RT is blatant propaganda. I’m one in a very long line of people who have left for the same reason. Everyone has their breaking point. I wish I had done it sooner. But I didn’t.”

TIME foreign affairs

Putin’s Defiance After Malaysia Airlines Crash Points to Further Isolationism

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Trinity lavra of St.Sergius
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for the Orthodox festival to honour the birthday of Venerable Sergius of Radonezh in the Trinity Lavra of St.Sergius on July 18, 2014, in Sergiyev Posad. Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images

The President has stubbornly refused to even suggest that the rebel leaders share part of the blame in the disaster.

At some point on Thursday evening, just after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 blew apart over some wheat field in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin had a chance to take stock of his options. There were essentially two. The Russian President could stand behind the rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine, even as suspicion grew that they were responsible for shooting the airliner down, and risk implicating Russia in the tragedy and deepening the Kremlin’s conflict with Ukraine and with the West. The other option, a familiar one for Putin, would be to use the senseless loss of life as an opportunity to shift toward reconciliation.

He had taken the latter approach a few years ago, in 2010, when a plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his entourage crashed in western Russia, killing everyone on board. To the surprise of many in Poland, Putin took that tragedy as a chance to make amends, however briefly, easing the history of mistrust between the two nations. His displays of mourning and commiseration – Putin even hugged and comforted Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk near the crash site – allowed Russians and Poles to call each other brothers for the first time in a generation.

Taking the same approach after Thursday’s catastrophe would have helped Putin on several fronts. He could have distanced himself from the increasingly erratic rebel leaders in Ukraine and their supporters in Russia, who have been goading Putin deeper into war, without looking weak or inconsistent at home. More important for his interests, he could have defused the West’s case for further sanctions against Russia, at least by working with Ukraine to investigate the tragedy and showing some remorse for his role in fueling the conflict that, ultimately, led to the downing of that plane. But Putin seems to have chosen otherwise.

Instead of the displays of empathy he showed after the crash of the Polish plane four years ago, Putin immediately began casting blame on Ukraine and shielding the rebels from criticism. Some observers have suggested that this was a kneejerk reaction rather than a well-considered choice. “The Kremlin will, for all its immediate and instinctive bluster and spin, have to definitively and overtly withdraw from arming and protecting the rebels,” wrote Mark Galleoti, a prominent Russia expert and professor at New York University. “I suspect that when the histories are written, this will be deemed the day the insurgency lost. Or at least began to lose.”

That may be true. But Russia’s behavior so far suggests that it will not stand by and watch the insurgency falter, regardless of how much evidence arises that its foot soldiers shot down that plane. Russian state television has already begun defending the rebels from blame, offering theories on the culpability of Ukraine’s armed forces. Once that message is chosen as the official line, the Kremlin will be wary of veering away from it. Many top officials have already locked themselves into a position, well before all the circumstances became clear. Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the Russian parliament and one of Putin’s oldest and closest allies, even accused Kiev of “criminal negligence” on Friday for allowing the Malaysia Airlines flight to pass over the region where “the Ukrainian army uses armored vehicles, heavy artillery, warplanes and launch rocket systems against their citizens.”

He made no mention of the fact that the rebels launch rockets as well, including the kind capable of taking down an airliner flying at more than 30,000 feet. Nor did Putin in his comments late on Thursday. “Obviously, the state over which this incident took place is responsible for this terrible tragedy,” Putin said.

The one-sidedness of the President’s response – his refusal even to suggest that the rebel leaders share part of the blame in the disaster – has given his critics a chance to lay the blame on him. Alexander Ryklin, a political commentator and vocal opponent of the Kremlin, wrote on Friday that “all of the political responsibility” lies on Putin’s shoulders. “He is the one who gave the orders to provide Russian technology and weapons to these mindless insurgents,” Ryklin wrote in an editorial on Friday. “And the result is clear.”

If the investigation into Thursday’s crash manages to prove that assertion in the coming weeks and months, the damage to Putin’s credibility at home and abroad would be enormous, and it is not clear what he has to gain from siding so clearly with the rebels this early in the investigation. Other than projecting a stubborn defiance in this conflict, and thus firming up his already sky-high support among hardliners in Russia, there is little obvious upside. So many Russia-watchers, particularly the investors who have a financial stake in Russia avoiding further sanctions, have held out hope that Putin will still shift to a more conciliatory line.

“Either the event will push Russia towards greater isolationism as a response to the broadly based global criticism,” said the Moscow-based investment adviser Chris Weafer, “or it will mark some sort of end, or the start of the end, of the most dangerous phase in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

Two days after the crash, that is still Putin’s choice to make. But from the signals the Kremlin is sending so far, it seems he has already made it. It would not only mean further isolation for Russia, it would also prolong or even deepen the most dangerous phase in its conflict with Ukraine.

TIME foreign affairs

Garry Kasparov: The Price of Inaction in Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists look at passengers' belongings at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region
Pro-Russian separatists look at passengers' belongings at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 18, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

Obama and Europe chose not to stand up to Vladimir Putin — now we're seeing the terrible toll.

There are many questions still to be answered about what happened to Malaysia Air Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. I will limit myself to what is known to a reasonable doubt based on the evidence and statements that have been provided by numerous officials in the 36 hours since the tragedy. Nearly 300 innocent lives were lost when Flight MH17 was shot out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. The missile was launched from an area in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-supplied and Russia-supported paramilitary separatists that include at least some Russian officers and special forces. Three other planes have been shot down in the region in the last month.

Nearly 300 dead. Horribly, needlessly. We all mourn them and seek to understand how this could happen. Based on the day’s official statements and most news coverage the word blame is somehow forbidden, and I do not understand why. Establishing responsibility and exacting accountability for these murders is more important than fretting about reaching the right tone of restraint in a press release.

So who is to blame? This is not a simple question even if you know the answer. That is, of course, the person who pushed the button that launched the missile is to blame; that is the easy part. Shall we just arrest him and try him for murder? Responsibility is a greater concept than that. You have the leader who gave the order to push the button. Then the person who provided the missiles to the separatists. Then there are the officials who opened the border to allow military weaponry to cross into Ukraine and the ministers and generals in Moscow who gave those orders. Then we come to the desk where all power resides in Russia today, the desk of the man those ministers and generals obey very carefully: the desk of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Blaming Putin for these deaths is as correct and as pointless as blaming the man who pressed the button that launched the missile. Everyone has known for months that Russia arms and supports the separatists in Ukraine. Everyone has known for years that a mouse does not squeak in the Kremlin without first getting Putin’s permission. We also know very well what Putin is, a revanchist KGB thug trying to build a poor man’s USSR to replace the loss of the original he mourns so much.

But blaming Putin for invading Ukraine — for annexing Crimea, for giving advanced surface-to-air missiles to separatists — is like blaming the proverbial scorpion for stinging the frog. It is expected. It is his nature. Instead of worrying about how to change the scorpion’s nature or, even worse, how best to appease it, we must focus on how the civilized world can contain the dangerous creature before more innocents die.

Therefore let us cast our net of responsibility where it may do some good. We turn to the leaders of the free world who did nothing to bolster the Ukrainian border even after Russia annexed Crimea and made its ambitions to destabilize eastern Ukraine very clear. It will be interesting to see if the Western leaders and business groups who have been working so hard to block stronger sanctions against Russia will now see any reason to change their policy. I expect they will at least be quieter about it until the wreckage is cleared away.

Is the West to blame? Did they push the button? No. They pretended that Ukraine was far away and would not affect them. They hoped that they could safely ignore Ukraine instead of defending the territorial integrity of a European nation under attack. They were paralyzed by fear and internal squabbles. They resisted strong sanctions on Russia because they were worried about the impact on their own economies. They protected jobs but lost lives.

Would this tragedy have happened had tough sanctions against Russia been put into effect the moment Putin moved on Crimea? Would it have happened had NATO made it clear from the start they would defend the sovereignty of Ukraine with weapons and advisers on the ground? We will never know. Taking action requires courage, and there can be high costs in achieving the goal. But as we now see, in horror, there are also high costs for inaction, and the goal has not been achieved.

The argument that the only alternative to capitulation to Putin is World War III is for the simple-minded. There were, and are, a range of responses. A horrible price has been paid, but it will not be the last if even this fails to provoke a strong reaction. Financial and travel restrictions against Putin’s cronies and their families and harsh sanctions against key Russian economic sectors may also do some damage to European economies. Until yesterday, Europe could argue about how much money their principles were worth. Today they have to argue about how much money those lives are worth.

Kasparov is the chairman of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation.

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