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doug saunders

To most impartial observers, the bulk of evidence seems to suggest that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down on Thursday over Ukraine's embattled Donetsk region by pro-Russian separatist rebels, using surface-to-air missiles either seized from Ukraine or provided by Russia.

This possibility, if it proves true, would not be good news for Russia, whose backing of the Ukrainian rebels will then have created a truly international catastrophe, involving an Asian jetliner flying from Western Europe to Australia with people from a dozen countries on board, including more than 100 AIDS experts en route to a conference in Melbourne.

Without waiting for evidence, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already begun to respond in characteristic fashion. It appears that his response, and the response of Russian officials and media outlets that are effectively under his control, is following a pattern well known to observers of Mr. Putin. It has four parts.

1. Blame Ukraine.

On the face of it, it might seem illogical for Ukraine's government or military to have had anything to do with the airliner's downing: After all, the pro-Russian rebels do not possess any aircraft, so therefore anti-aircraft missiles have not been part of the Ukrainian armament.

That did not prevent Russian agencies from almost immediately blaming Ukraine. Well before anything was known about the downing of MA-17, Russian state media was issuing reports Thursday that the Ukrainian government had been trying to hit Mr. Putin's presidential jet, which was en route from Brazil to Moscow earlier that day (and did not appear to have passed over eastern Ukraine). "The likely goal of the Ukrainian rocket hitting the Boeing may have been hitting the plane of the Russian President," one Russian TV news reporter said.

In fact, the Russian state television agency went so far as to edit the Wikipedia entry on MH17 on Thursday to remove any mention of the rebels and replace it with the phrase "The plane was shot down by Ukrainian soldiers."

2. Blame the West for provoking it.

Even if it turns out that Russian-backed rebels did indeed shoot down the plane, Mr. Putin has provided a pre-emptive response: It was still the fault of Ukraine and the West, because they fought back when Russian-backed troops seized part of their country, and therefore created a conflict situation that led to the downing.

That may sound farfetched – after all, there was no conflict situation until Russian forces, responding to Ukraine's democracy movement, seized Crimea and Russian-backed rebels tried to seize Donetsk. But it's the line Mr. Putin is using, and he's sticking with it: "I would like to note that this tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in that country, or in any case, if hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine," Mr. Putin told a meeting of his economic advisers on Thursday.

"And certainly," he added, "the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy."

3. Say others have done it, too.

This is a classic Putin tactic: When criticized for doing something excessive (outlawing opposition parties, imprisoning and killing journalists, invading territories), point out that Western countries have been doing the same thing, in even greater measure. Mr. Putin, in interviews, has often displayed a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of unjust imprisonments, riot-police deaths, state control of newspapers and invasion of territories by Europe and the United States.

Here, he could bring up the instance of Siberian Airlines Flight 1812, a Russian passenger plane that was shot down over Ukraine in 2001. Ukraine's leaders (who were pro-Russian at the time) admitted that it had been at fault when an S-200 surface-to-air missile was fired during military exercises. All 78 people aboard were killed when it crashed into the Black Sea.

Or he could mention Iran Air flight 655, which was shot down by the United States Navy off the Persian Gulf in 1988, after crew of the U.S. cruiser Vincennes mistook it for a military jet during a tense moment. All 290 passengers died.

4. Obfuscate. Mr. Putin's other signature move is to create conditions of deep ambiguity, preventing any clear conclusion that could lead Russia to be blamed and constantly leaving open the possibility, against all evidence, that someone else may have been at fault.

He has already begun hinting at this approach, suggesting in a phone call with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte that he would not be satisfied with the usual air-crash investigation procedure but wanted a "thorough and impartial" international investigation to examine "every detail" of the crash before any conclusion is reached. Here, too, there is a precedent: Shortly after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people, it became apparent that Libyan terrorists had bombed the flight. For nearly a decade afterwards, until 1999, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi cast doubt and false leads on the case in order to prevent a resolution (he finally handed over individuals he claimed were responsible).

Is Mr. Putin willing to create a decade of ambiguity in order to avoid any responsibility for this disaster? We don't know yet, but it would be in keeping with his traditions.

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