For once, in a long and impressive career of cunning and guile that has often confounded the international community, Vladimir Putin may have made a fatal mistake. The extreme hubris that has caused Putin to take ever increasing risks in his handling of the situation in Ukraine has backfired in spectacular fashion, with the tragic destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine by what intelligence sources suggest was a 'Buk' anti-aircraft missile supplied to Ukrainian rebel forces by Russia.
What the MH17 catastrophe has really achieved is to consolidate a broad spectrum of international opinion firmly against Russia. Previously, the United States had taken the lead in instigating sanctions against Moscow, with some reluctant support from European Union partners who remained primarily concerned with securing an enduring energy supply and trading relations with Russia. Now, the pendulum of international opinion has swung firmly in the other direction, with nations such as Australia and the Netherlands, who lost many citizens in the crash, insisting on an open investigation under international supervision, and ultimately that the perpetrators of this atrocity be held to account. Before this most recent tragedy, it was possible for unconcerned nations, including many leading European powers, to quietly dismiss the Ukrainian conflict as a regional issue, indirectly connected with their fundamental interests. Germany has been particularly guilty, with Angela Merkel's government unwilling to jeopardise Germany's economy by imposing meaningful sanctions.
While the international response to the Ukrainian crisis has floundered, hampered by a lack of solidarity, Vladimir Putin has done what he has always done successfully - taken advantage of Western indecision to further strengthen his position. On this occasion, Russia has supplied ever greater quantities of sophisticated armaments to rebel proxies in Ukraine, and sown the seeds of revolution within the borders of another sovereign state. From a detached political perspective, Putin has been a remarkably able tactician during his many years as Russia's President. The secret to his enduring power has been the deft political calculations he has utilised to build an image of strength at a time of grave economic and political uncertainty in Russia. By acting ruthlessly in the face of any usurpation of his authority, both at home and outside Russia's borders, Putin has established himself as a figure willing to go to any length to defend Russia from 'threats' - both real and imagined.
For many years, Russia has operated on the boundaries of international law, ensuring that it achieves its security objectives without behaving in a manner sufficiently outrageous to unite Western opinion behind sanctions or a more forceful military response. On too many prior occasions - for instance during the Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008 - Russia has defied international opinion without any significant repercussions. All this lack of unanimity in the international community has achieved is to embolden Russia's President to take even greater risks in the pursuit of unilateral Russian interests. Consequently, Putin has overplayed his hand, and a catastrophe has resulted. Now, the crisis in Ukraine, and perhaps Russia's broader relationship with the international community, has reached a tipping point.
For the nations of Europe, the legacy of appeasing Russian behaviour makes a vigorous response to the current crisis absolutely vital. While there may be economic risk inherent in imposing sweeping sanctions, a broad package of 'level three' measures, targeting vulnerable sectors of the Russian economy, is essential. The role of the EU is undeniably crucial given that in 2012 Russia's trade with Europe amounted to €268 billion compared to only €19 billion with the United States. The time for a 'signal' to Moscow has passed - it is time for Europe to act, and act forcefully, to impose significant restrictions on Russia's economy, and demonstrate to Vladimir Putin that his actions have consequences. Failure to show conviction at this crucial juncture will only encourage further crises of an even greater scale in the future - and that is a very sobering thought.