Though facts on the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine remain hard to pin down, the event could easily end up being a game-changer. While it’s impossible to rule out that the Ukrainian or Russian militaries are responsible for the tragedy, the rebels have been the ones bringing down Ukrainian military aircraft throughout the course of the conflict—with a marked uptick in attacks just this week.
Radio chatter leaked by Kiev, purportedly between rebel commanders and their Russian intelligence handlers, seems to indicate that rebels brought down the plane thinking it belonged to the Ukrainian military:
(Click over to the Interpreter for a translation.)
It goes without saying that this is unverified material, but if it is true, it suggests that while the Russian military is intimately involved with the rebels, they don’t have full command of the situation on the ground.
Putin cannot be happy about this latest turn of events. After all, things were going more or less according to plan up to now. Yesterday’s reasonably robust round of U.S. sanctions was accompanied by a set of comparatively meek European ones consisting mostly of a moratorium on development aid. Putin was doing his best to portray himself as a responsible statesman, in contrast to the reckless Western interests that goaded Kiev into civil war, going so far as to say that his door was always open for further negotiations. With the fog of war descending over eastern Ukraine, it was starting to look like he would be able to keep the region on a low simmer while the world was distracted by hotter conflicts elsewhere.
As of right now, that looks less likely. While it’s always dangerous to underestimate the divisions in Europe, if any kind of definitive intelligence linking Russia to this tragedy emerges, it will be much harder for skeptical Europeans to remain straddling the fence.
[Note: Walter Russell Mead is en route from the UK to NYC as we write. We are sure to have more from him on these developments tomorrow.]