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News Opinion Editorial

Putin on the hot seat [Editorial]

Russia's President Vladimir Putin was once lauded by supporters for his brilliance in cynically calling for a negotiated end to Ukraine's civil war while simultaneously escalating the conflict through secret shipments of arms and equipment to Russian-backed separatists there. Now that stratagem has blown up in his face as Russia's hand in the downing of a Malaysian airliner with 298 people aboard last week becomes increasingly apparent. Mr. Putin has backed himself into a corner with much of the world holding him personally responsible for all those deaths. The U.S. and its allies need to keep up the pressure until he stops obstructing international experts seeking to investigate the crash and drops his support of the rebels.

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said American intelligence had concluded the airliner was shot out of the sky by a Russian-made missile launched from rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine where the plane went down. Mr. Kerry identified it as an SA-17 surface-to-air missile, a far more sophisticated weapon than the portable shoulder-fired rockets rebels previously had used against Ukrainian military transport and combat aircraft. The evidence of Russian involvement in arming the rebels with such advanced weaponry and training them to use it was overwhelming, he said.

Though rebel leaders initially denied their forces had anything to do with the downing of the airliner, news reports said the SA-17 batteries had been seen in the region by foreign journalists and cited evidence that they may have been returned to Russia after the plane was shot down in order to conceal Moscow's role in the attack. It's unclear whether Russian military trainers or special forces units were present when the missile was fired or whether the rebels were even aware the target they were tracking was a commercial airliner rather than a Ukrainian government military aircraft. Either way, it appears they quickly realized the error — if that's what it was — and took steps to distance themselves from it.

Avoiding blame also seems to have been the motive behind the rebels' interference with crash investigators by denying them full access to the site where the plane went down and preventing them from collecting the remains of its passengers, whose bodies were initially allowed to decompose on the ground where they fell before most were collected and stored in refrigerated cars. The callousness of such behavior in light of the monstrous nature of the crime led one international inspector who visited the site to denounce the rebels as an ill-disciplined band of half-drunken hooligans who seemed completely indifferent to the anguish suffered by the victims' families or their pleas to have their loved ones' remains returned for burial.

Given such reports, there's little doubt the rebels are deliberately trashing the crime scene in order to destroy evidence that could point to culpability in the attack, either on their own initiative or at Moscow's behest. But it's unlikely they will get away with it. The deaths of nearly 300 innocent civilians, including scores of women and children, has focused the world's attention on the conflict in Ukraine in a way Mr. Putin cannot avoid responding to, and there's likely only one response the U.S. and its European allies will accept as adequate: An end to Moscow's meddling in Ukraine's internal affairs and a complete withdrawal of Russian military, diplomatic and economic support for Ukraine's rebels.

Absent that, even countries like Germany, Spain and Italy, which so far have been reluctant to impose tougher economic sanctions on Moscow, will feel compelled to act by the pressure of their own domestic public opinion. Indeed, there already are signs of that happening as Russia comes under withering criticism from the international community that is putting Mr. Putin himself on the hot seat unless he changes course. As evidence of Moscow's involvement in the destruction of Malaysian Flight 17 continues to mount in the coming days and weeks it will become ever clearer to the Russian leader that his covert war in eastern Ukraine is unsustainable and that his strategy of using "drunken" local proxies to advance Russia's interests in destabilizing and weakening the government in Kiev has backfired badly.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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