It’s always a tricky proposition, believing what the Russians say during the course of any crisis. Caginess, particularly with the West, is practically ingrained in Russian DNA and Putin, who is a creature of the KGB, is no different. So as the Russians remain tight-lipped about the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 – which most of the West is publicly assuming was caused by an on-board bomb – we are forced to take cues from what the Russians are doing, rather than what they are saying.
And the Russians’ latest move – shutting down all Russian flights into and out of Egypt – indicates that the Russians clearly believe that terrorism was somehow involved in Metrojet Flight 9268’s demise. What it further indicates is belief in the going Western theory – that someone at the airport in Cairo must have helped the terrorists get the bomb through security and on board the plane.
Putin and the Russians have already set a well established precedent for how they deal with Islamic terrorism within their own borders – they respond with overwhelming force, refusing negotiation and showing little or no regard for the lives of civilians. Russia’s retaking of the Dubrovka theater and the Beslan school sent a very clear message to the Chechen Islamic extremists at home – Russia is perfectly willing to blithely kill its own citizens just to prevent Islamic terrorists from getting anything from their acts of terrorism.
However, the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 presents a new and unique challenge for Putin. His instinctual response in these situations is to respond with overwhelming force, but he doesn’t currently have a target to respond to. An attack on a Russian asset abroad is causing Putin to develop a new response paradigm, and the world is watching to see what he does.
One thing is for sure, Putin himself saw how the United States responded to the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole with half-assed measures that were designed primarily to give President Clinton (who cared about Foreign policy only to the extent that it was able to distract from his sexual harassment of an unpaid 24 year old White House intern) the ability to claim that he was doing something. Putin, of all people, is likely to draw the same basic conclusion drawn by the Bush administration; that perceived weakness in response to the attack on the U.S.S. Cole contributed directly to the boldness of Al Qaeda in planning and executing the 9/11 attacks.
Putin knows that he cannot afford to provoke widespread Islamic terrorism within his borders, given that betwen 15-20% of his country’s population is Sunni Muslim. His response to this attack might well end up shaping the ongoing conflict in the Middle East more than anything Obama has done during his whole tenure. Up to this point, Russia has primarily confined their activity in Syria to air strikes; the temptation for Putin to respond to the downing of Metrojet 9268 by putting Russian boots on the ground must be overwhelming for Putin, given his understanding of the best way to respond to terrorists.
But Putin must also have watched closely America’s painful experience in Iraq, including its price tag, and he must know that getting involved in a decade-long ground war in the region is probably beyond Russia’s capability at this point.
The whole world is watching now with bated breath to see what Putin will do next. His actions may well set off a domino reaction that our feckless President will be powerless to halt.