A possible Putin strategic apology



English: TOKYO. President Putin on a tatami at...

English: TOKYO. President Putin on a tatami at the Kodokan Martial Arts Palace. Русский: ТОКИО. На татами во дворце спортивных единоборств «Кодокан». (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some commentators suggest that Mr. Putin is in a difficult position and will find it impossible to explain this event or save face. See for example Tom Nichols excellent piece Panic in Red Square.[1] I believe that reputation management can provide a possible approach to his dilemma.[2] For any avoidance of doubt, I condemn the attack on MH17 and here are my public views on Mr Putin’s leadership.

After his statement supporting an international crash site investigation, Putin could use a strategic apology statement to deflect attention. He could say something like the following.

“You have probably read or heard that we have had a serious problem with the downing of MH17 in the disputed territory of Donetsk.

We have found that separatist forces operating in the area used our equipment inappropriately to fire the missile that brought down the plane.[3]

We regret the loss of life in this tragic mistake. The separatists are under constant threat from the Ukrainian forces and made a mistake.[4] Initial reports indicate that they believed the aircraft to be a legitimate military target. We find the loss of civilian life unacceptable just as we find unacceptable the loss of Russian lives from fascist forces.[5]

To find out what happened, we will launch an investigation. We will invite representatives from the Dutch government to participate. We also ask that he UN nominate a suitably independent candidate for this investigation. We expect the Russian laws to be upheld as befits a sovereign state of its stature and with a tradition to law and justice.[6]

The Russian Federation is a sovereign nation that honours its international obligations. We regret the loss of civilian life. We will find out what happened. If the investigation finds that compensation is required, we will meet our international obligation. In all matters, we will uphold Russian law. We ask the international community join with us and condemn the threats to our patriotic brothers, which contributed to this tragic mistake.[7]

Please note that this advice notice is simply for illustrative purposes. It is not professional advice nor should the Russian Federation or Mr Putin construe it as endorsing a course of action.


[1] Unlike Professor Nichols, I do not believe that Mr. Putin is in a box on this issue nor do I believe that this will unravel Russia’s support for the separatists. We must remember that Mr Putin understands judo and he is skilled at using Western principles against the West. We must remember how he stage managed the Crimean annexations and then caught the West on the back foot when he called a snap election to ratify it. In this, he showed how he could use western democratic principles, elections and “popular” sovereignty, against western critics.  This is not to say that his approach is or was legitimate. Instead, it is to show that he has demonstrated an ability to escape obviously bad situations.

[2] For an example of a strong apology letter to repair corporate reputation consider the example from Tesco a major UK retailer that suffered scandal over horse meat. Please note that I am not equating the Tesco scandal with the MH17 crime. I am pointing out that reputation management follows principles that can be applied to any situation.

[3] Putin will know there is no value in denying the obvious as that hurts his position. Instead, he will seek to twist this into something else like a tragic mistake.

[4] Here Putin will be able to explain this in the context of the Ukrainians taking action against the separatists. By doing this, he can show that shooting down the plane fits within a context of a military conflict and that reinforces the underlying reality that he has tactical and strategic military superiority in the region.

[5] The statement will be one that links the “terrorism” that it has suffered against the West’s rapid condemnation of a “tragic mistake”. He will want to show that Russia is as much a victim as others in fighting the scourge of terrorism.

[6] The goal will be to invite an international representative to give the cover of international legitimacy and it will invite the Danes in the belief that they can be cowed into whatever the Russians find. The Russians will also insist on Russian laws so that they can control the outcomes and remind the world of their robust obedience to law and pursuit of justice.

[7] Putin would want to remind the audience that the separatists were defending themselves and would work to suggest that they were provoked.


The situation is not 1975 and Russia has a number of plausible scenarios to pursue to continue its efforts to pressure Ukraine over Donetsk separatists. Even though the MH17 crime puts them on the back foot and hurts their claims, there is no evidence that the order came directly from Putin or can be linked to him. Having survived as a KGB officer, he will understand the principle of plausible deniability and will be an expert in bureaucratic warfare needed to keep his fingerprints from appearing on the decision. He would have succeeded within the United States government where senior bureaucrats and service secretaries survive and succeed by their ability to avoid leaving any fingerprints on failures despite being nominally responsible. I doubt Mr Putin will be toppled by this issue. He may have to take a different tack on Ukraine and it will limit his ability to influence it in the short and medium term but unless the West finds a way to leverage this into a change on the ground, it will simply become bad publicity, which is something that Russia has traditionally been able to withstand.






About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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