It would be easier to settle the conflict in Ukraine if the adversaries lived in the same universe.
The national standing ovation Vladimir Putin gets each time he throws gasoline on the fire next door, and the conspiracy theories his supporters invent to justify every move he makes, suggest that genuine peace will be hard to come by.
A deep streak of Russian paranoia explains much of this. The country lost more than 20 million people to the Nazis. Millions of Soviet citizens – many of them Ukrainians – were murdered by Josef Stalin. Decades of Soviet propaganda and manipulation left the public deeply cynical.
In the 1990s, the United States squandered an opportunity to develop closer ties with post-Soviet Russia. Russians felt betrayed by what they saw as global anti-Russian conspiracies, especially when NATO was extended into the Baltic countries and other fragments of the old Soviet empire.
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What’s hard to understand, though, is how far so many Russians will go to justify their own country’s actions.
Take the downing of Malaysia Flight 17. All the evidence so far points one way, at Russian-equipped, pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. They weren’t trying to shoot down a commercial airliner, but they were bragging about shooting down a Ukrainian military transport until the news broke that a civilian jet had been destroyed.
Flight 17 was attacked over rebel territory. The Ukrainian military wasn’t shooting planes down because the rebels don’t have any planes to shoot down. The wreckage is peppered with shrapnel holes characteristic of a Russian Buk anti-missile system. On and on – the evidence would be enough to convict in any courtroom.
When it happened, though, Putin immediately suggested it was Ukraine’s fault. The compliant Russian media then began mass-producing theories to back him up:
Ukrainians destroyed Flight 17, so one scenario goes, because they thought it was another plane carrying Putin himself. Malaysia Airlines’ logo is red, white and blue, the same color as Russia’s flag, so Ukrainians must have been trying to blow up a Russian airliner. Or they deliberately diverted Flight 17 over the combat zone, no doubt with CIA help.
Then there’s this gem: Flight 17 was really Malaysia Flight 370, which vanished over the Indian Ocean without a trace last March. Under this theory, the United States seized control of the aircraft and landed it at its military base in Diego Garcia. Americans killed the passengers, then arranged for the Boeing 777 to be shot down over Ukraine.
All to make Russia look bad.
These are crazy scenarios. They get so much play because they fit a popular narrative about Russian blamelessness and Western evil.
The danger is that Russians are in effect giving Putin a license to do any kind of mischief in Ukraine. His popularity soared when he seized Crimea, and it soars when he embraces the separatists. He has responded to the international outrage over Flight 17 by giving them more arms and stirring up more trouble. In the bargain, he’s just had his military test a cruise missile that violates an arms control treaty Mikhail Gorbachev signed in the Reagan era.
Maybe the new round of U.S. and European sanctions announced this week will rein him in. But with the Russian public cheering him on, maybe not. The little war in Ukraine looks increasingly ripe with risk.