Despite global outrage at the horror of the MH17 missile attack, Russia may escape the consequences of its belligerence, say experts.
Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands are talking tough about holding Russia to account if it is found to be complicit in the crash.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is leading the charge, raising the prospect of fresh EU sanctions against Russia, saying the West must “fundamentally change our approach” if Moscow did does not alter its course in Ukraine.
“Russia can use this moment to find a path out of this festering, dangerous crisis. I hope it will do so. But if that does not happen then we must respond robustly,” he wrote in an article in the Sunday Times.
The US has already unleashed a new round of sanctions against some of Russia’s most important energy and military firms. Britain, France and Germany have publicly agreed that Russia should face further sanctions.
But Emeritus Professor Paul Dibb, an expert in international relations at the Australian National University, told The New Daily that this will probably turn out to be an empty threat.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has invaded Georgia and meddled in the Ukraine, only to be “slapped across the face with a wet fish”, in the form of weak economic sanctions, Professor Dibb says.
“Putin is a classic KGB colonel who delights in deception, ducking and weaving, and divine rule. You wouldn’t want to bet on it.”
Putin can’t back down
Russian expert Dr John Besemeres, who served for some 30 years in numerous Australian government portfolios and has published extensively on Russian and Eastern European affairs, says it will be very difficult for Putin to back down now.
The Russian population has been “whipped up into an hysterical national fervor” by a “terrible” mass propaganda campaign, giving Putin a buffer against political backlash, but also little room to retreat, Dr Besemeres says.
“If he did, this would be a game changer in a positive sense. But I think it’s unlikely. It wouldn’t be his style, it wouldn’t be in his domestic political interest. It would be humiliation, a back down. Unless he is forced into it, I don’t think he will embrace it readily.”
Russia may also play on the fact that, to act decisively, the EU members must act together with “a degree of unanimity”, which is unlikely, Dr Besemeres says.
Australia has emerged as a key player in the unfolding conflict, both by chance and design.
The deaths of 38 Australian citizens and residents on the flights coincide with Australia acting as Chair of the UN Security Council and host of this year’s G20 Summit.
The domestic focus on the disaster has shifted to Mr Putin’s attendance at the Brisbane G20 meeting in November, with Labor and the Greens and Queensland Premier Campbell Newman all demanding Russian cooperation in the investigation before he is welcomed.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been especially strident in his condemnations of Russia, even earning a rebuke from the Eastern giant. His ‘poking the bear’ is a move that appears brave and which plays well on the domestic political scene, but probably boils down – as most things do – to money and political gain.
The public demands action, but may not get it
The public outcry at the tragedy, and the subsequent mistreatment of bodies, poses a unique problem for those world leaders with close economic ties to Russia.
“Public opinion is determining attitudes in a number of countries that up until now had been hedging their bets very much because of other considerations,” says the Lowy Institute’s Mark Callaghan.
The Netherlands, which suffered the largest loss of life in the crash, also had the “weakest” response, according to Mr Callaghan.
“Pointing fingers only reduces the chance for a broad, independent investigation,” Dutch PM Mark Rutte said last week. This is in stark contrast to the US, which has openly accused Russia of supplying the missile launcher that downed MH17.