Within hours, even minutes, of the Ukraine air disaster, there was only one culprit in the eyes of much of the world. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was already in the dock.
Russia, it was assumed, had supplied the murderous weapon system to anti-Kiev fighters, in a move not just belligerent but reckless (because the recipients were unlikely to have the necessary expertise). The Kremlin, it was also assumed, pulled the rebels’ strings, ordering them to advance or retreat as suited its purpose. So, whoever pressed the button to launch the missile, the buck stopped with Moscow.
There are reasons to question both these assumptions. The missile – and it increasingly appears to have been a missile that downed the Malaysia Airlines plane – need not have been supplied by Russia. The Ukrainian army possesses missiles of this type, and the rebel fighters have former Ukrainian soldiers in their ranks. They also claim to have obtained weapons by overrunning military depots, which is entirely possible, given the amount of territory they still control. How far Moscow can effectively switch the rebels on and off can also be challenged. Before Ukraine’s presidential election in May, Putin appealed to them to postpone the referendum they had planned on self-rule. They defied him. Moscow’s calls, both before and after the election, for the rebels to observe a ceasefire and vacate the buildings they held, similarly fell on deaf ears.
Moscow, for its part, has also rebuffed repeated pleas from rebel leaders for help. The Russian invasion that was widely forecast after Russia annexed Crimea did not happen. By now, those described, not entirely accurately, as “pro-Russian separatists” largely comprise desperate bitter-enders, who increasingly fear – with justification – that Moscow has hung them out to dry.
Putin’s problem, however, is this. Even if Moscow and the anti-Kiev fighters are increasingly at cross-purposes, and even if the missile that downed flight MH17 came from a depot inside Ukraine, this is not what most of the world believes. The annexation of Crimea saw a leader prepared to break the international rules. Whether, as I would argue, this was in a misguided quest for Russia’s security, or to reconstitute its lost power, as others argue, barely matters: Putin is burdened with the image of a leader who is careless with the law and with others’ lives.
There is little he can do to remedy this in the short term. All he can do – if, as he appears to, he shares the shock of other national leaders – is to join international efforts to establish what happened, even if the results may be unwelcome, and show a punctilious regard for due process. In terms of international reputation, he has nothing more to lose. More western sanctions are the least that Russia can now expect.
There are two partial parallels, though, that offer some pointers. In 1983, a Soviet fighter jet shot down a Korean Air Lines plane, with the loss of all 269 passengers. The resonantly coded KAL007 had strayed into a sensitive area of Soviet airspace by accident or – some speculated – by design.
The Soviet response was silence, followed by bellicose denial, followed by efforts to derail the international investigation. It was eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Russia acknowledged the truth.
Fast forward to 2010, when a Polish aircraft carrying the country’s president and other dignitaries crashed near Katyn in Russia. The ironies were appalling. This was an official delegation on its way to commemorate one of the worst atrocities of the second world war – the massacre of Polish officers by Russian forces in 1943, which successive Soviet leaders had obfuscated and denied. The disaster threatened a new cold war, or worse, between Poland and Russia. However, Putin, – at the time prime minister – behaved with a humility and grace rare for his often prickly nation, and the result was a new warmth in relations.
It may be vain to hope that the destruction of a Malaysian airliner, with a global passenger list, in a benighted part of Ukraine, could shock the warring parties and their backers into peace. But what happens now rests to a large extent with Putin. Will it be KAL007 or Katyn? His choice could determine not just the fate of Ukraine, but Russia’s place in the wider world.
Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She is a former foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington, and a special correspondent in China and many parts of Europe.