To judge by much of the western media coverage in recent days, you would have thought that Vladimir Putin had spent last Thursday sitting in the Kremlin, plotting how to blacken his image in the West even further, before settling on the brilliant idea of getting some clueless proxies to blow an international airliner out of the sky.
At least, if he had, the line of responsibility would be clear; the western arguments casting him and his country as global pariahs would incontestable, and we could all be contemplating moves not just to isolate Russia, but to haul Vladimir before the International Criminal Court.
For all the certainty that has attended western vilification of Putin – and UK news-stands on Saturday and Sunday showed barely one front-page that did not put him personally in the dock – two crucial facts remain unproven.
Even if anti-Kiev rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down flight MH17 because they mistook it for a Ukrainian transport plane, which appears the most likely explanation, it has not been established that the ground-to-air missile system used was supplied to them by Russia (as opposed to being looted from Ukrainian army stocks). Nor do we know how much control, if any, Putin had of the rebel forces.
Russia’s failure to help the rebels regain the military headquarters they lost at Sloviansk two weeks ago suggests to me at least that, after the election of President Petro Poroshenko, Russia was tacitly switching its support to Kiev and hanging the rebels out to dry. The rebel forces themselves seemed an increasingly fissiparous, desperate and drunken bunch. All of which, of course, would make them more, not less, dangerous.
You will search in vain for any hint of this in the West’s ultra-confident anti-Russian diatribes, of which a weekend Financial Times article by Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, was a striking example (‘Putin’s credibility lies amid the wreckage of flight MH17’). Bildt may have been arguing in good faith, but his script was peppered with weasel words and phrases, such as ‘clearly’ and ‘there is little doubt’, that allowed assumption to masquerade as fact. This is not a sound basis for Western policy-making.
Nor is the credence that has generally been given to the version of events coming out of Kiev. I am not suggesting here that the authorities in Kiev had anything to do with the shooting down of the plane, but some of what has emerged over the past 24 hours suggests that Kiev has been presenting the aftermath of the crash in a not altogether accurate light – both perhaps to blacken the rebels further and to disguise the extent to which it is not in control of its own territory.
Thus we were told, for instance, that OSCE personnel were repeatedly blocked, sometimes by heavy armoury or at gunpoint, from reaching the crash site. The evidence, including corpses, it was said, had been tampered with; the black boxes spirited off to Moscow.
While there may have been looting, and combat conditions that made it hard for officials (though not journalists, it seems), to reach the site, it seems there has been more cooperation than Kiev maybe realised. Local police and emergency workers, it transpires, worked through the night under OSCE supervision to carry bodies to refrigerated trucks; last night, more than two-thirds of the 298 had been recovered. The black boxes are in the regional centre, Donetsk, waiting for investigators to collect them. Far from being kept away, investigators were asked, when they arrived, ‘where were you?’.
It is entirely possible that in very difficult and highly politicised conditions, different versions of events will exist side by side. But the rush to judgement here has been a credit to no one.
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