Conflict & Justice

The Kremlin digs in its heels


Malaysians outside the Russian embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.


Mohd Rasfan

MOSCOW, Russia — Vladimir Putin didn’t even wait for the conclusions of a meeting of Russia’s Security Council on Tuesday to denounce alleged Western meddling in Ukraine and reassert the need to bolster his country’s military capabilities.

That’s because the Russian president’s position on last week’s downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was already clear: Despite receiving major international flak for the incident, the Kremlin is accepting no responsibility.

Since the crash — which much of the world has pinned on the Russian-backed separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine — an alternate narrative has played out over the airwaves and through official channels here placing the blame on Ukraine’s doorstep and diminishing Moscow’s alleged support of the rebels.

The state-run media — where most Russians get their news — has provided the first line of defense, running reports implicating the Ukrainian military in the crash.

Conspiracy theories have been given unusual prominence, with one even suggesting that Putin’s plane was the target.

On Monday, a group of dour-faced Russian generals gathered to present what they said was evidence linking Kyiv to the tragedy.

Exhibit A, said Lieutenant General Andrei Kartapolov, a senior general staff officer, were data he said indicated that a Ukrainian fighter jet armed with air-to-air missiles was trailing the doomed Malaysia liner shortly before its crash.

Kartapolov pointed to satellite imagery he claimed revealed the location of Ukrainian missile systems — the same type allegedly used to down MH17 — within functional range of the plane.

In an apparent attempt to soothe international outrage, Putin announced on Tuesday that he would respond to calls urging him to use Moscow’s leverage over the rebels, who still control two key eastern Ukrainian cities.

But he also issued a stern reprimand to Western officials over what he calls foreign influence in Ukraine’s crisis.

“Russia is being presented with what is almost an ultimatum: ‘Let us destroy this part of the population that is ethnically and historically close to Russia and we will not impose sanctions against you,’” he said at the Security Council meeting, referring to the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east.

“This is a strange and unacceptable logic.”

The piling up of evidence in recent days that appears to point to the rebels’ accidental downing of the plane — including alleged phone intercepts between rebel leaders released by Ukraine’s security service — has helped bolster public opinion against the Kremlin.

Some Kremlin critics believe the crash has raised the stakes for Moscow in its standoff with Western countries and pushed Putin into an uncomfortable corner. However, Kremlin supporters suggest officials here are less concerned about the heat they’re getting from abroad.

“The category of ‘global public opinion’ is a bit broader than those who are convinced that Russia is to blame for this tragedy,” said Alexei Mukhin of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information.

Many officials and observers here argue that Ukraine is presenting flawed evidence aimed at maintaining Western support.

“You can cast as much doubt as you’d like over the facts and explanatory materials presented by the Ministry of Defense,” said Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-linked Institute for the Commonwealth of Independent States, referring to Monday’s meeting of Russia’s military leadership.

“But only in the case that other facts and materials contradict them, and not some video clips from the internet or clearly falsified conversations between whoever.”

More from GlobalPost: Here's the evidence (so far) that pro-Russian separatists shot down MH117

Like many others here, Zharikhin suggests at least part of the blame belongs to Ukraine.

“In the end, no matter what anyone says, the Malaysian airliner crashed on Ukrainian territory, and the Ukrainian government carries responsibility for that.”

As European Union officials prepare to announce new sanctions against Russia this week, such words seem to indicate the standoff with Russia will only deepen.