It is hard to overstate the damage that the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine has done to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition to isolating him further internationally and threatening greater harm to the Russian economy, the killing of 298 people aboard a civilian jetliner, which U.S. officials are increasingly sure was caused by a missile launched by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, has gravely undermined the aura of competence and tactical brilliance that Putin has cultivated over the years and which helped Russia project outsized influence even in an era of post-Soviet decline and diminishment. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes, letting powerful Russian-made anti-aircraft weaponry into the hands of pro-Russia fighters who cannot tell the difference between a large passenger airliner and a military plane is “a f’-up on Putin's part of almost mind-boggling proportions. Yes, a tragedy. Yes, perhaps an atrocity. But almost more threatening, a screw up.”
But we should not just leave it at that. Rather, we should recall all those in recent months who showered awe and praise on Putin for his extreme capability, which was often contrasted unfavorably with the hapless President Obama.
First, there was all the praise for the Russian military itself following the invasion of Crimea. The New York Times, among many others, gave dazzling reviews of the “sleek new vanguard of the Russian military,” soldiers who were “lean and fit,” dressed in uniforms that were “crisp and neat …their new helmets...bedecked with tinted safety goggles,” and outfitted with “compact encrypted radio units distributed at the small-unit level, a telltale sign of a sweeping modernization effort undertaken five years ago by Putin that has revitalized Russia’s conventional military abilities, frightening some of its former vassal states in Eastern Europe and forcing NATO to re-evaluate its longstanding view of post-Soviet Russia as a nuclear power with limited ground muscle.”
This seemed a tad premature and overstated, given that the Russian military was facing virtually no resistance from the outnumbered Ukrainian forces in Crimea—it’s easy for soldiers to look sleek and professional when there’s no actual contact with the enemy. But Putin himself basked in the praise, echoing it himself in a ceremony celebrating the invasion: “The recent events in Crimea were a serious test, demonstrating the quality of the new capabilities of our military personnel, as well as the high moral spirit of the staff,” he said.
Once pro-Russian separatists started their uprising in eastern Ukraine, there was a new round of praise for the deviously brilliant strategy Putin was deploying there, sending in personnel and equipment to assist the separatists but making sure that the personnel were unmarked, giving Russia superficially plausible deniability about their activities. Commentators hailed this approach—maskirovka, or masked warfare—as the wave of the future in warfare. As one admirer wrote in a column for the Huffington Post:
President Putin's game plan in Ukraine becomes clearer day by day despite Russia's excellent, even brilliant, use of its traditional maskirovka. … It stands for deliberately misleading the enemy with regard to own intentions causing the opponent to make wrong decisions thereby playing into your own hand. In today's world this is mainly done through cunning use of networks to shape perceptions blurring the picture and opening up for world opinion to see your view as the correct one legitimizing policy steps you intend to take.
This “cunning use of networks” is less “excellent, even brilliant” when said networks, as now appears likely, kill nearly 300 innocent civilians, most of them citizens of the nation that is one of your largest trading partners.
Meanwhile, there was all along the more general praise for the prowess and capability of Putin himself from American conservatives. Charles Krauthammer penned a Washington Post op-ed headlined: “Obama vs. Putin, the Mismatch.” Rudy Giuliani’s adulation for Putin surely caused a blush in the Kremlin: “[H]e makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. And then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader.” Rush Limbaugh went on a riff about Putin’s superiority to Obama:
In fact, Putin—ready for this?—postponed the Oscar telecast last night. He didn't want his own population distracted. He wanted his own population knowing full well what he was doing, and he wanted them celebrating him. They weren't distracted. We were. …
Well, did you hear that the White House put out a photo of Obama talking on the phone with Vlad, and Obama's sleeves were rolled up? That was done to make it look like Obama was really working hard—I mean, really taking it seriously. His sleeves were rolled up while on the phone with Putin! Putin probably had his shirt off practicing Tai-Chi while he was talking to Obama.
Was Putin also practicing shirtless Tai-Chi when he learned that, in all likelihood, men fighting in Russia’s name and with its backing had downed a passenger airliner and provoked a major international incident? Who knows. Enough, for now, that this awful tragedy provokes a jot of self-reflection on the part of those who were so willing to trumpet Putin’s brilliance these past few months. If Putin’s maskirovka did manage to “shape perceptions blurring the picture,” these admirers were the most susceptible.