This is as much as a catastrophe for Putin as it is everyone else

Russia has done everything but admit guilt, although it could soon find itself with nowhere to hide

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Ever since the Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down in eastern Ukraine last Thursday, the pressure has been on Russia – and on President Putin – to admit guilt at least by association, and do something to remedy the situation. Instead, what the West has heard has been one long denial and attempts by Russia to transfer all the blame on to Kiev.

In judging Russia’s response, however, it is important to consider how the present set of circumstances might look from the Kremlin, and indeed at what Russian officials have actually been saying. And the first thing to recognise is that there is no way that Mr Putin or anyone else would have rubbing his hands in glee. The downing of a civilian airliner over Ukraine is at least as much of a catastrophe for Russia as for everyone else.

Implicit in much of the Western commentary has been the idea that Putin’s Russia had been egging on Ukraine’s rebels to produce some macabre “spectacular” and supplying them with the wherewithal to do just that. But Putin is in a cleft stick.

The Western assumption is that he controls what happens in eastern Ukraine, even if Russia has not actually invaded. It is not at all clear, however, that this is so. The military hardware the rebels have at their disposal, including the missile launcher believed to have shot down the Malaysian airliner, could equally have been found in Ukraine. And appeals from Moscow to the rebels to observe a ceasefire after the Ukrainian presidential election were ignored. 

Yet there is a sense in which it suited Putin not to contest this view too categorically – for the sake of his domestic public opinion and the image of his own authority. Russians would expect their leader to be supporting the rebels in Ukraine against what they see as a Western-backed government in Kiev.  

All the signs are, however, that since the election of President Poroshenko two months ago, Mr Putin has progressively abandoned the rebels in the east. All their appeals for Russian help have gone unanswered and there was no assistance forthcoming when they lost their military stronghold at Slovyansk.

 

The shooting down of MH17 is not just a human tragedy, of which Mr Putin is well aware: Russia was prompt in its expressions of condolences. But it is an acute political embarrassment to the Russian President. If he was supplying and can control the rebels, he is complicit. If not, his impotence in Ukraine is exposed.

In these circumstances, it is a wonder that he has said as much as he has. As well as expressing condolences, Russia has also said it will co-operate with any international investigation and pledged to ensure that the black boxes – if they come into Russian hands – are returned to the relevant authorities.

The one thing Putin has not done is to acknowledge guilt. But his initial statement – that responsibility rested with those in Kiev and those in control on the ground – was widely misinterpreted as assigning blame to Kiev. It may rather be seen as underlining Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty, stating the judicially correct position that responsibility for keeping order, securing the crash site and opening an investigation lies with the authorities of the country where the plane came down.

And here, Moscow might see a bitter irony. Ever since Russia annexed Crimea, illegally, the West has warned Russia of the consequences of invading eastern Ukraine. As Putin might see it, his reward for not doing so has been to be held responsible for the continuing civil war in the east which ultimately produced last Thursday’s atrocity. Since Thursday, the West has been begging Russia to intercede with the rebels and blaming it for apparently not doing so. Putin might well ask whether the West wants Russia to accept Ukraine’s independent sovereignty or not.

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