President Obama announced on Friday that U.S. officials believe Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile originating from a rebel-controlled area of eastern Ukraine. Even as the investigation into the plane crash continues, international scrutiny has become focused on the Kremlin’s possible role in enabling the tragedy. Directly in the crosshairs is Russian President Vladimir Putin who has found himself in an uncomfortable defensive position in the face of global outrage over his government’s support for separatists in Ukraine.
While Putin sounded a conciliatory note with his offers of emergency aid and investigators to assist in the probe of the crash site, his efforts to redirect blame to Ukraine’s government show that he’s not interested in backing down on the issue. According to the leader, “this tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine. And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.”
Both sides have been trading blame since the immediate aftermath of the plane crashing. However, Putin’s personal entry into the fray puts him— and his continuing refusal to disavow the separatist rebels thought to be responsible for the attack— front and center as the regional conflict becomes elevated to a matter of international significance. The volatile conditions that have embroiled the region are no longer conveniently confined to eastern Ukraine and are, apparently, blowing up more rapidly than Putin could have anticipated— with possibly major consequences ahead.
The Russian leader might not have broken a sweat over mounting Western sanctions on his government but the timing of this tragic incident is poised to make the ongoing sanctions campaign far more of a threat. The downing of the Malaysian jetliner came just a day after the U.S. and Europe announced a new set of sanctions on Russian banks and energy companies. Europe has very reluctantly followed Washington’s lead here, fearful of rippling economic repercussions across the continent. This diffidence is no doubt rapidly evaporating though.
Following the attack, which saw over a 100 European casualties, security concerns may just be a heavy enough counterbalance to E.U. economic fears. Public demands for Russian accountability will certainly change the calculus for European leaders. The push for sanctions is set to gain momentum, especially as the Kremlin continues its determined obfuscation of the circumstances around the disaster. Putin, meanwhile, can expect to remain in the hot seat as international scrutiny materializes in mounting pressure on the Russian economy— something which will ultimately hit at Putin’s own domestic base of political support.