MH17: Putin's missing chance to escape a losing war

18:13, Jul 18 2014
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Malaysia Airlines flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
The crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Emergencies Ministry members work at the site of a Malaysia Airlines plane crash near Grabovo, Ukraine.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Emergencies Ministry members work at the site of a Malaysia Airlines plane crash near Grabovo, Ukraine.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight 17 smoulders at the main crash site.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight 17 smoulders at the main crash site.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight 17 smoulders at the main crash site.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight 17 smoulders at the main crash site.
Part of the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 is seen after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region.
Part of the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 is seen after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region.
MALAYSIA2
The site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region.
The upper floor of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is reserved for family and relatives of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
The upper floor of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is reserved for family and relatives of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
Ukraine plane crash
An Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in Ukraine.
People bring flowers and candles to the Dutch embassy to commemorate the victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash.
People bring flowers and candles to the Dutch embassy to commemorate the victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash.
Family members of passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on a bus bringing them to a separate area at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.
Family members of passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on a bus bringing them to a separate area at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranked officials observe a minute's silence for victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranked officials observe a minute's silence for victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash.
US President Barack Obama speaks about the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, during a visit to Wilmington, Delaware.
US President Barack Obama speaks about the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, during a visit to Wilmington, Delaware.
Armed pro-Russian separatists stand at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo.
Armed pro-Russian separatists stand at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo.
Talking to reporters, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (R) demands swift justice for those responsible for the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, as Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein looks on.
Talking to reporters, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (R) demands swift justice for those responsible for the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, as Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein looks on.
Schiphol Chief Executive Jos Nijhuis, Malaysia Airlines Senior Vice President Huib Gorter (middle) and Malaysia's ambassador to the Netherlands Fauziah Binti Mohd Taib at a news conference on flight MH17 at Schiphol Airport.
Schiphol Chief Executive Jos Nijhuis, Malaysia Airlines Senior Vice President Huib Gorter (middle) and Malaysia's ambassador to the Netherlands Fauziah Binti Mohd Taib at a news conference on flight MH17 at Schiphol Airport.
Smoke rises from the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
Smoke rises from the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
MH17
A firefighter stands as flames burst amongst the wreckages of the MH17.
MH17
The wreckage smoulders at the site of the MH17 crash.
An Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash.
An Emergencies Ministry member walks through the site of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash.
A woman who said she believed her sister was on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, cries as she waits for more information.
A woman who said she believed her sister was on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, cries as she waits for more information.
A father and daughter light candles at the Dutch embassy to commemorate the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
A father and daughter light candles at the Dutch embassy to commemorate the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
People light candles at the Malaysian embassy for victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
People light candles at the Dutch embassy for victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
People place candles and flowers at the Dutch embassy for victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
People place candles and flowers at the Dutch embassy for victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
A family member cries as she receives the news of the ill fated flight MH17.
A family member cries as she receives the news of the ill fated flight MH17.
A Malaysian woman who had a relative on board the Malaysian Airlines MH17 reacts to messages on her mobile phone as she waits to travel to Kuala Lumpur.
A Malaysian woman who had a relative on board the Malaysian Airlines MH17 waits to travel to Kuala Lumpur.
Relatives of passengers onboard the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Relatives of passengers onboard the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
A father and daughter light candles at the Dutch embassy to commemorate the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
Malaysian Siti Dina weeps after seeing her daughter's name on the list of passengers on board MH17.
A security officer passes a Malaysia Airlines advertisement at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia.
A security officer passes a Malaysia Airlines advertisement at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang
A man (in blue) whose family was onboard the Malaysia Airlines MH17 consoles another who had just arrived with her wife to receive confirmation that their daughter's family was onboard the plane, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
A man (in blue) whose family was onboard the Malaysia Airlines MH17 consoles another who had just arrived with her wife to receive confirmation that their daughter's family was onboard the plane, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
A relative of a passenger onboard the Malaysia Airlines (MAS) MH17 is assisted by MAS staff members as she leaves Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
A relative of a passenger onboard the Malaysia Airlines (MAS) MH17 is assisted by MAS staff members as she leaves Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Malaysian Siti Dina speaks to media as she arrives to confirm news that her daughter was on board Malaysia Airlines MH17 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Malaysian Siti Dina speaks to media as she arrives to confirm news that her daughter was on board Malaysia Airlines MH17 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
AIDS Conference
Members of the public walk past signage on the Princes Bridge for the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Twenty-seven Australians and more than 100 AIDS activists, researchers, health workers and delegates bound for the major conference were among those aboard MH17.
MH17
Relatives of passengers on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
A journalist takes photographs at the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash
A journalist takes photographs at the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash.
Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Ministry search for bodies near the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash.
Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Ministry search for bodies near the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash.
Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Ministry search for bodies near the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash.
Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Ministry search for bodies near the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash.
MH17 crash
A woman lights candles at a memorial for victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in Kuala Lumpur.
MH17 crash
Pro-Russian separatists look at passengers' belongings at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
MH17 crash
A pro-Russian separatist holds a stuffed toy found at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
MH17 crash
A flower placed on wreckage is pictured at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
MH17 crash
A man blocks access to the scene of the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 as emergency personnel remove the bodies of passengers.

President Vladimir Putin is missing a golden opportunity by not disowning the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Instead, as pro-Putin media and social network trolls invent increasingly fantastical versions of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, Russia risks becoming a pariah even to developing countries that have sympathised with its anti-American stance.

"The state over whose territory this happened bears responsibility for this horrible tragedy," Putin said on Friday (local time) as he opened a meeting on the economy in Moscow. So his reaction to the death of 298 people on board the Malaysia Airlines jet is to blame the Ukrainian authorities, who, he said, shouldn't have "resumed military action in the southeast of Ukraine".

It is difficult, however, to convincingly lay blame for MH17 at Ukraine's door, because the pro-Russian rebels are the ones who have been shooting down aircraft in the area: They have no warplanes of their own, and anti-aircraft weapons are their only way to counteract the government forces' supremacy in the air. Ukraine's military, by contrast, have nothing to shoot at that has wings.

The Russian propaganda machine is struggling to deal with this simple fact. So far, the following versions have surfaced:

— The Ukrainians launched a missile hoping to shoot down Putin's own plane. "A source in the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency" told the Interfax news agency that the Malaysian jet and Putin's specially modified Il-96 briefly passed the same spot 10,100 metres (33,100 feet) over Poland on Thursday, and the two planes look alike from a distance: both are big and decorated with red, white and blue stripes. "Considering the schizophrenia in Kiev political circles, this version does not appear absurd," pro-Putin TV host Vitaly Tretyakov wrote on Livejournal.

— The residents of Grabovo, a village near the crash site, saw a warplane in the sky "several minutes before the crash". They also saw it "launch several missiles". Then debris started raining down. Other Russian media quote rebel representatives saying with certainty that a Ukrainian fighter plane was responsible.

— The other Malaysian Airlines loss, Flight MH370, which mysteriously disappeared in March, was hijacked with a view to staging a provocation against Russia and now, finally, has been used. The bodies at the crash site are those of MH370 passengers: they're partially decomposed and the European passports found strewn on the ground are suspiciously new.

— A Spanish air traffic controller working in Ukraine said on Twitter that Ukrainians shot down the plane. The Ukrainian authorities then threatened him so he wouldn't disclose the truth. (Twitter closed down the account after ascertaining there was no such air traffic controller in Kiev).

I may have missed a few other colourful myths, but the general plan is clear: to sow doubt in the minds of ordinary Russians. "The more versions, the less clear it is, the less clear it is, the more time there is to work out the final version that will later become canonical," columnist Oleg Kashin wrote on svpressa.ru.

As Kashin also points out, it isn't Russian TV that writes the canonical version of events internationally. In the eyes of the world, Putin is as guilty as he is portrayed on Friday's front page of the British tabloid, The Sun:

If Putin keeps backing the insurgents until their inevitable defeat, his international isolation will deepen, as did that of the Soviet Union's leaders after their jets shot down a Korean passenger jet in 1983, and former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi after the 1988 bombing of a PanAm airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. Malaysia, a Muslim nation that has long fought American influence, can hardly be expected to listen to Russian fairy-tales about the crash. The developing world will now join the West in condemning the rebels — and Putin as their only ally.

"It's one thing to be the modest helper of some rebels," former Russian diplomat Alexander Baunov wrote on Facebook. "It's another thing to help insurgents who have perpetrated one of the biggest terrorist attacks in the history of aviation."

By disowning the rebels immediately — in the form of criminal proceedings against the Russian citizens among them, the immediate withdrawal of any Russian aid for them and a public admission that it was their activity that led to the downing of MH17 — Putin could abandon the losing side while saving face. The window of opportunity for Putin to escape this losing war is shrinking, however, and he is unlikely to get a better chance.

- Bloomberg News

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin
MISSING HIS CHANCE: Russia's President Vladimir Putin.