The double game that the Kremlin has been accused of playing in eastern Ukraine for weeks — publicly endorsing peace talks while surreptitiously supporting the separatists with arms and men — suddenly appeared less crafty than possibly disastrous Thursday after a civilian jetliner crashed in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russia separatists.
What, exactly, brought Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tumbling out of the sky, killing all 298 people aboard, remained uncertain. But given the immediate suspicions raised in Kiev and Washington that a sophisticated missile ripped it apart, the crash brought the question of who was responsible to the doorstep of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
“It is an extremely awkward moment for the Kremlin,” said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Everyone in the West and in Ukraine is already pointing … at the Kremlin. They are not waiting for an inquiry — they are blaming Russia today.”
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Putin pointed the finger at Ukraine. During a late Cabinet meeting on economic matters, according to a statement on the Kremlin website, he said: “Definitely, the country over whose territory this happened bears the responsibility for this horrible tragedy.”
Putin, without saying what might have caused the crash, said “this tragedy could have been avoided” had Ukraine not resumed combat operations in the southeast. A shaky cease-fire lasted 10 days at the end of June.
The Russian president said he had instructed all military and civilian agencies to give all possible assistance “in the investigation of this crime.”
Russia has denied supplying the rebels with men or weapons. But with each passing week, as the bloodshed escalated, new questions were raised about the involvement of the Russian security services. The United States imposed new, tougher economic sanctions against a few Russian banks and its oil industry Wednesday, in the process accusing Moscow of continuing to arm the separatists.
The Russian military had already denied this week that it had shot down a Ukrainian military AN-26 cargo plane near the border Monday with a missile fired from its territory. Ukraine’s defense minister said that plane had been flying at more than 21,000 feet, well beyond the reach of the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles the rebels have been known to use.
The charges of Russian involvement were being repeated in the case of Flight 17.
Even Russian analysts have scoffed at claims by Putin and the Russian government that the country was pursuing solely a diplomatic end to the crisis in Ukraine, prompted in February by the popular overthrow of a Russian ally in Kiev who had rejected a closer alliance with Europe.
“It is a game for Putin,” said a former senior Russian government official this week, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The United States and, to a lesser degree, European nations, have accused Russia of sending soldiers and weapons across the border for months, in a barely veiled flow of evermore elaborate weaponry.
On the Ukrainian side, the separatists have similarly rebutted suggestions that they received much help from Russia, even as their arsenal has come to include tanks, howitzers, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, ground-to-ground multiple-rocket launchers and other heavy weapons. Officials in the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist governments, many of them Russian citizens, said the arsenal was pilfered from Ukrainian bases they had captured.
Initially, militia fighters were coy about their more sophisticated weaponry; men on barricades showed little more than Kalashnikov rifles.
But later, one extremist brigade, the Vostok Battalion, invited reporters to photograph fighters unpacking wooden crates holding new-looking Russian-made Igla, or Needle, shoulder-carried anti-aircraft missiles. With planes and helicopters being shot down regularly, there seemed no point in hiding anything.
In June, Ukrainian officials said three tanks crossed border points with Russia controlled by rebels and rolled into Ukraine. Other columns followed. Videos appeared of tanks and armored personnel carriers towing artillery along roads near the border.
In addition to accusing Russia of sending Grad rocket launchers into Ukraine, Kiev also charged that the Russian military had fired rockets across the border at its troops. After initial expressions of concern in Western capitals, the flow of weapons became almost routine.
For some, the crash of Flight 17 was reminiscent of one of the worst incidents of the Cold War, when on Sept. 1, 1983, Soviet air-defense forces shot down a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 that had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 people on board were killed. Moscow stonewalled the investigation for 10 years, until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Others pointed to Ukraine’s accidental downing of a Siberian Airlines passenger jet over the Black Sea in 2001 during a military-training exercise.
Call for cease-fire
Immediately after Thursday’s crash, the Kremlin issued a short statement summarizing what it called a previously scheduled telephone conversation between Putin and President Obama. “The parties had a detailed discussion about the crisis in Ukraine,” the statement said.
Putin repeated the need for an immediate cease-fire, objected to what he said was Ukrainian army fire striking inside Russia and “expressed his disappointment” at the latest round of sanctions.
The only reference to the crash came in one sentence at the end: “The Russia leader informed the U.S. president of the report received from air traffic controllers immediately prior to their conversation about the crash of a Malaysian airplane over the Ukrainian territory.”
But that might have been because Putin himself was in the air over Eastern Europe, state-run television reported, flying home from Brazil after a six-day Latin American tour.
The official line, echoed by state-run television and analysts close to the Kremlin, included plenty of speculation that Ukraine was at fault. Experts interviewed on Rossiya 24, a main cable-news show, stressed that there was no evidence that the crash was caused by a missile.
One expert noted that Malaysia Airlines had already lost one long-range jet this year, a sign that anything could have happened to another of its aircraft, and suggested that Flight 17 might have collided with a Ukrainian military aircraft because Kiev was lax in not closing Ukraine’s airspace.
Sergei Markov, an analyst who often speaks about the Kremlin’s viewpoint when it will not, called the crash terrible luck, a Ukrainian plot or, as he put it, “a specially organized conspiracy by the Kiev junta.”
No matter what the Kremlin says or does, the idea that only someone with military training would have been able to operate the technically complicated air-defense system needed to fire a missile to such height will undoubtedly keep the spotlight focused on Moscow.
“Vladimir Putin kept raising the stakes,” when it came to military support, said Kirill Rogov, an economic analyst and political commentator in Moscow. “In my view, he kept making mistakes, but to cover them he raised the stakes even higher. This was a dangerous strategy, and now we see the results.”