Rebels in Ukraine hold up personal effects from one of the 80 children who perished on Malaysian Flight 17 last week. President Putin tried to remake the Russian brand during the Sochi Olympics last winter, but the world sees a brutal truth now.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014 9:43 AM
By BRIAN A. HOWEY
BLOOMINGTON – Any illusions I had about the progressive nature of the Putin regime quickly dissipated when I returned to my Moscow Grand Marriott room in August 2007. Upon opening the door, I was greeted with the spectacle of my papers and note pads strewn about the room. It was clear that an FSB agent stopped in to get a better handle on who this American journalist might actually be.
There had been a peaceful transfer of power between President Boris Yeltsin to Putin seven years prior, capping the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union that few predicted. Putin had won a subsequent election, though he controlled state media and international observers had determined it rigged. Russian people could now travel more freely to the West, and Russian hockey players populated the NHL without having to go through the rigors of defection.
As a Congressional delegation headed by Sen. Richard Lugar and former Sen. Sam Nunn journeyed across Moscow’s outer highway belts, a back-of-the-bus discussion involving the New York Times’ C.J. Chivers and the Washington Post’s David Hoffman speculated on whether Putin would relinquish power after his second term concluded a year later. There was no consensus and little speculation that Putin would elevate Dmitri Medvedev to the presidency and spend the next four years as prime minister before retaking ultimate power in 2012 from behind his facade.
The Soviet economy morphed into an oligarch-controlled quasi capitalistic system. The gulags no longer existed, but as our delegation bus passed Lubyanka, the brutal Soviet legacy protruded and nudged the realm of the past and the possible.
Since last Thursday, when it appears that Ukrainian separatists working with the Russian military shot down Malaysian Air Flight 17 killing 298 people, the entire civilized world now has a greater appreciation of the nature of President Vladimir Putin. On the Sunday morning talk shows, U.S. Rep. Peter King described him as a “Mafia guy” and on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the term “thug” was common place.
The wreckage and grotesque images from the Ukrainian sunflower and wheat fields were aptly described by the New York Times’ Peter Baker and a reporting team that included Chivers: The plane exploded in midair and plummeted down into a series of large fields of wheat, grass and sunflowers, its fuselage and landing gear twisted into a mountain of metal, wires, engines and seats. Bodies lying in the field struck strange, unnatural shapes in the tall grasses, many naked but for their shoes. Some were nestled together among piles of open suitcases, including a man in a mint-colored T-shirt lying near a woman in torn jeans whose right arm was thrown up over her head as if she were trying to protect herself. Others lay alone, like the tiny girl, probably no older than 3, dressed in a red T-shirt without pants. The sight was overwhelming, even to rebels, who stood in stunned groups trying to comprehend.
Included in this jarring scene were Indiana University graduate student and rower Karlijn Keijzer and 297 other souls (with 80 children and infants), including former Kankakee Valley HS exchange student Laurens Van Der Graaff, her travel companion. In the following days, viewers on worldwide CNN, Al-Jazeera, the BBC and the American networks saw imagery of rebels picking through the debris field, removing missile shards, as well as wedding rings and other personal effects. Crumpled bodies were stacked in the summer heat along railroad tracks, and then loaded into refrigerated rail cars. Dutch forensic team members finally given access five days later appeared stunned at the entire fiasco. It was an appalling third world scene.