The aftermath of the tragic crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has generated consensus among the world's leading countries on Russia's role in the Ukrainian crisis. Moreover, this event has caused European leaders to substantially reconsider their attitude on the nature and scope of sanctions against Russia.
But in the absence of evidence pointing directly to the involvement of Ukrainian separatists in the tragedy, Russia still sees opportunities to defend itself against accusations and promote alternative versions of what happened. These versions are not being taken seriously by international media, politicians or the public in many countries.
Russian aviation experts suggest that the information from the aircraft's black boxes can only indirectly confirm the fact of a missile attack on MH17. The full picture of the catastrophe, these experts say, can only be developed based on the retrieval of the aircraft wreckage and a comprehensive assessment of the damage. They note that only through such a procedure was it possible to establish that the Russian Tu-154 passenger plane flying over the Black Sea in 2001 was downed by Ukraine's air defence forces.
Nonetheless, representative of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine Andrei Lysenko said analysis of the airliner's black boxes had already confirmed the plane had been downed after being struck by shrapnel from a missile that caused a massive, explosive decompression. These comments drew a sharp rebuke from Moscow: official conclusions can only be made upon completion of the investigation.
Representatives of the Russian Government and the state-controlled information space in Russia have put forth a variety of theories, including directly blaming the Ukrainian military for shooting down the plane with a Buk surface-to-air missile or a fighter jet which was supposedly flying in close proximity to the airliner. The Russian media only indirectly and inconspicuously mentions the possibility that the separatists could have launched a rocket from their own Buk system.
Independent experts in Russia believe that the Boeing was downed by a Buk missile fired from territory controlled by the separatists. But such missile complexes must be controlled by professionals, which is why most often the blame is placed on Russian military personnel who could be operating in Ukraine. This version is usually accompanied by an important caveat: the passenger plane was mistaken for another target. For example, the separatists received a false report regarding the flight of a Ukrainian military transport plane and mistook the Boeing for that plane. The intercepted communications between the separatists several minutes after the tragedy occurred seem to support this assertion.
This version is not one that can be swept aside by some massive information campaign engineered by Russian authorities.
Their position is made worse by the dominant viewpoint in many countries, which is that while the separatists are directly to blame for the downing of MH17, the Kremlin is the main culprit in this tragedy. This is the viewpoint projected from Washington, although mainly relying on indirect evidence and without yet providing photos or information from satellites and other means of reconnaissance. The less frequently mentioned scenario, that the missile was launched from Russian territory, changes little: in either case, Russia and specifically the Russian president are the guilty party. This case is already proven for many politicians, experts and a large portion of the population of the world's leading countries.
The consequences for Russia depend on the outcome of the crash investigation. Even if it confirms that Vladimir Putin learned only after the fact about the 'mistake' made by the separatists and that there was no command from Moscow to shoot down the Boeing, this will not change the essence of the situation for the Kremlin. Its only chance for redemption is if somehow the blame for the tragedy is shifted to Kiev and the world community accepts this. But this is a fleeting chance, at best.
However, much time remains before the investigation will conclude, and the dynamics of the Ukrainian crisis and relations with the West are rapidly worsening in the meantime. The EU's adoption of the third and most painful round of sanctions signals that the conflict has already gained substantial momentum.
One particularly critical aspect of this crisis for the Kremlin is the show of solidarity on both sides of the Atlantic. From the early years of Vladimir Putin's leadership, a special emphasis was placed on strategic cooperation with the European Union. Until recently, relations with leading European partners even took precedence over relations with countries of the former Soviet Union. In Moscow there was hope that Brussels would take a much more moderate approach than Washington, and that conflicts of interests between America and many European capitals would have a mitigating effect.
Following the tragedy, Moscow lost much of its room for manoeuvre between European countries and the US. Now the political position of EU leaders has more clearly separated from the interests and pressure of European business. Furthermore, the Kremlin is seeing a new and worrying trend: the attitude toward Russia in the European business community has begun to change. The tough criticism of Russia coming from the leaders of German industrial associations has been particularly painful.
If Moscow and the fighters under its control are truly not responsible for the tragedy, it should do everything possible to help establish the true cause and in doing so at least minimise the collateral damage to its relations with the EU. Otherwise, even while the investigation is in process, the position of those accusing Moscow of all sorts travesties (not only the tragedy of the Malaysian Airlines flight) will only grow stronger.
The question of Russia's responsibility for the Ukrainian crisis is now becoming a separate problem considered outside the scope of the MH17 tragedy. So as Moscow strives to keep the focus on the question of who shot down the aircraft, it should not forget that the answer to this question may not be the deciding factor in whether other countries decide to enact tough containment policies toward Russia.