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Putin in meltdown

Unarmed Dutch and Australian police arrived yesterday in eastern Ukraine to help secure the Malaysian Airlines crash site for investigators and forensics experts.

The move came at the end of a week that has seen slow progress in removing the remains of the 298 victims to the Netherlands for identification, and mounting pressure on Vladimir Putin as the United States and the European Union toughened their sanctions aimed at forcing him to accept responsibility for the crisis.

It has been a tough week for the strongman in the Kremlin. So tough, indeed, that Putin has not gone to the Kremlin much, preferring to stay hunkered down at his presidential villa deep in the forest at Novo-Ogaryovo, half an hour's drive west of Moscow. Here, the birch trees and pines are fragrant and shady, offering respite from the summer heat.

There was no respite from the political heat, though, as aides brought him sheaves of Western press cuttings: Putin the killer, Putin the monster, Putin you murdered my child … Never before has Western public opinion turned against the Russian president so universally as it has in the wake of the shooting down of flight MH17 on July 17.

And it wasn't just newspapers. Every day Putin has had Western leaders on the telephone, haranguing him to rein in separatist rebels accused of bringing down the plane, and directly or indirectly accusing him of complicity. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, called Putin every single night, usually very late, to remind him that the bodies of Dutch citizens were still strewn across land controlled by Russian rebels, men seen on television strutting around with Kalashnikovs and cigarettes, their faces masked, almost mocking investigators' attempts to get near the crash site.

Last Sunday night - and into the small hours of Monday morning - Putin's phone was red-hot. Angela Merkel, David Cameron, ­Australia's Tony Abbott, Rutte, Francois Hollande - all rang in quick succession. Putin put down the receiver and ordered his exhausted press team into action. A cameraman set up a tripod next to the president's desk - no time for make-up to hide the boss's sweating face - and an assistant squatted underneath, shakily holding two microphones while Putin delivered a two-minute statement he hoped would still Western concerns.

Some hope! He did demand unfettered access to the crash site for a full team of international air accident investigators. And the next morning, the rebels seemed to take heed, and stopped intimidating Western diplomats still trying - after four days - to make a first assessment of the situation. But what was more striking during the week was Putin's apparent inability to control the masked men who, allegedly in his name, are wreaking havoc in eastern Ukraine.

In May, the rebels held a referendum, ignoring Putin's plea to postpone it. They may have expected him instantly to recognise the result and incorporate their "Donetsk People's Republic" into the Russian Federation, as he had with Crimea. But they misunderstood Putin. The president acted swiftly to annexe Crimea mainly because he feared the pro-Western "Maidan" revolution in Kiev, which seemed to him entirely orchestrated by the West, could lead to Russia's Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol falling into Nato's hands, which he would not tolerate. But the eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were different. Yes, Putin spoke nostalgically of these areas as "Novorossiya" - former parts of the Russian empire. Yes, he firmly supported the rights of Russian-speakers there. And yes, he had even passed a law to "allow" Russia to invade Ukraine to protect Russian citizens.

But by now he had already repealed that law and appeared content to let the separatists do their own fighting, while turning a blind eye to the flow of weaponry and manpower across the border from Russia. There was no indication whatsoever that he wanted to annex these regions of Ukraine. They were not strategically important, as Crimea was, and annexation would cause an international uproar Putin was not prepared to risk.

So the look on Putin's face as he delivered his 2am monologue betrayed more than just frustration at the West's unrelenting criticism. It also seemed to send a signal that he himself was aghast at what had happened, and incensed by the sheer idiocy or incompetence of the rebel forces which had apparently fired off a Russian-supplied BUK missile without even checking what kind of aeroplane they were aiming at.

Putin himself, it is interesting to note, has never publicly denied the plane might have been downed by separatists. That has been left to the Russian media, who served up a smorgasbord of bizarre alternative explanations, including the proposition that the plane had been full of dead bodies before it took off.

Putin has limited himself to blaming the Ukrainian government for creating the situation that led to the catastrophe, by prolonging - and intensifying - its military campaign. That is an aspect that Western media tend to ignore. In the past weeks, hundreds of civilians in eastern Ukraine have been killed and injured by Ukrainian shells and bombs. This is no longer just masked men taking over local administration buildings and barricading themselves inside with sandbags. This is a real war, fought with tanks, missiles and (on the Ukrainian side) warplanes. That is why the rebels have taken to shooting aircraft down - so far about 20, including helicopters, fighter jets and, now, a civilian airliner. And that is why 230,000 Ukrainians, according to the UN, have now fled their homes.

So why has Putin not taken the chance to crack down on his unruly proxies, and win some brownie points with the west? Ukraine might even have been persuaded to reopen discussion of some kind of federalisation, which would have guaranteed Russians' rights in the eastern regions in exchange for Putin's help in putting an end to the uprising.

The answer may be that Putin's hands are already tied by the powerful Russian nationalist constituency that he himself has done so much to create. In speech after speech over the past year or so, the president has whipped up nationalist fervour, hinting at Russian "exceptionalism" or moral superiority over the decadent West. The controlled Russian media have eagerly followed suit. It would be hard for him now to appear to abandon Russians fighting for their rights in Ukraine, even if he thinks they have made a mess of things.

To see the other reason for Putin's attitude, it would have been interesting to accompany him on his sole trip to the Kremlin last week, and look down the long narrow table around which he convened an emergency session of his security council - 28 men and one woman who are tasked with ensuring the country's internal and external security. About 12 of these form an inner core at the heart of Putin's power apparatus, and almost all of them are from his own background - former spies, agents and military people, in some cases even from the same city, St Petersburg. They are hand-picked yes-men, highly unlikely to oppose the boss over anything substantial, and if inclined to differ in any way, then only to urge him to stand up to the West and crack down on internal dissent even more strongly.

The meeting resolved to do more to "combat extremism and terrorism" and "ensure public safety". As if on cue, a court then sentenced two opposition leaders who had taken part in anti-Putin protests two years ago to four-and-a-half years in jail.

The security council also discussed ways to reduce what they called the dependence of the country's economy and financial system on "unfavourable outside factors" - a sure sign sanctions already introduced by the US and the European Union may be beginning to bite. Putin tends to shrug off the effect of sanctions, but the latest round of American measures may be more worrying, because they hit Russia's defence industries and also firms linked to some of Putin's closest allies - the oil company Rosneft, VEB bank, and gas producer, Novatek.

Putin will have been less worried by what happened in Brussels, where EU leaders imposed sanctions on more individuals, including two Russian intelligence chiefs, but failed to agree on a package of economic sanctions. The Kremlin knows the Europeans have far less leeway than the Americans, having much closer economic ties with Russia. France is half-way through fulfilment of a contract to supply warships. Germany, Italy and many other countries rely on Russian gas supplies. Britain profits from Russian oligarchs who launder their money and buy property in London - not to mention donating to Tory party coffers. BP owns almost 20% of Rosneft, which is on the US sanctions list.

Britain's Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond has said Putin's "cronies" should be the main target, although there is little evidence that the oligarchs who have enriched themselves thanks to their links to the Kremlin leader actually have any influence over his policies.

The difficulty with sanctions designed to punish rather than influence is they are open-ended. EU diplomats said they were agonising over a so-called "off-ramp" - a way to scale back the sanctions if Russia begins to play a more constructive role in Ukraine by, for example, halting arms supplies to the separatists. The trouble there is that no one has so far been able to quantify exactly what arms have been crossing the border, making it almost impossible to know if a halt is really called.

As the West wrangles over its response to the Ukraine crisis, it is worth noting another trip Putin made last week - a half-day excursion to the Volga city of Samara, to lay the foundation stone for a brand-new stadium for the 2018 World Cup. That is the next prestigious international event Russia will host after the Sochi Winter Olympics. The football will kick off a month or so after the next Russian presidential election. Guess who wants to be at the opening ceremony? Riding currently on a wave of 85% approval ratings, my guess is Putin will stand again, and win another six-year term. Punishing him for what is happening in Ukraine is all very well. But we may also have to deal with him for another decade.

Angus Roxburgh is a former BBC Moscow correspondent and former PR adviser to the Kremlin. He is the author of The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia

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