Circumstantial evidence linking pro-Russian separatists to the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 is piling up. But the Russian government has its own theories, several, for what brought the plane down.
Shortly after the crash, President Vladimir Putin blamed Kiev, because the jet was shot down in Ukrainian airspace. But Russian media have promoted other theories; for instance, that Putin's plane was itself the intended target, or that the victims are actually from the Malaysian air flight that disappeared over the Indian Ocean in March.
But international suspicion of Moscow's role in the crash — directly or otherwise — has continued to build, and so has the criticism. The Kremlin has responded with a rash of statements and press briefings from Putin, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry, with many different versions of what happened in eastern Ukraine and who's responsible.
The whole process is designed to confuse, says Boris Makarenko, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, an independent think thank in Moscow.
“In old fairy tales, an evil witch created a dozen images of a stolen princess to confuse the prince,” Makarenko says. “That's exactly what the Russian television is doing; creating a dozen crazy versions to make it difficult to tell the difference between the real princess and the shadow images.”
Makarenko says it's clear people are confused by all of this, but adds, "the question is how long these effects last. It’s never forever.”
Internationally, Putin has been presenting a cautious, cooperative front by calling for an open investigation into the crash. Domestically, however, there’s an aggressive media campaign designed to prove Ukraine’s culpability.
Makarenko says keeping Russians distracted is part of a complicated balancing act aimed at escaping challenges on the domestic front,and new sanctions internationally.
Russian authorities mocked earlier international as ineffectual — even a badge of honor. But in the wake of a new round of US sanctions that sent the Russian markets tumbling, officials seem worried about sanctions' drag on their economy. Additionally, the EU has warned of sanctions if Moscow doesn’t cooperate with the investigation. There’s even talk of moving the 2018 World Cup out of Russia.
Putin has called punitive measures against Russia “unacceptable,” and says the real aim is to destabilize and overthrow the government.
Putin faces other challenges, though. Despite his near recording approval ratings after annexing Crimea in March, Putin has few good options as the Ukrainian military advances in eastern Ukraine.
It’s a problem of Putin's own making, says Makarenko. The Russian president has hyped claims of violence and genocide against ethnic Russians in Crimea, he says. Now, with real violence erupting in east Ukraine, any attempt to protect ethnic Russians — by sending in troops or peacekeepers — would be sure to trigger new sanctions.
“The problem is Putin willingly or unwillingly got too much wind in the sails of extreme nationalists," says Makarenko. "And now there is no doubt that hostilities in Donetsk and Luhansk bring death to many people including Russians, but Russia is hardly in a position to interfere militarily.”
Yet, inaction in eastern Ukraine alienates fiery Russian nationalists, like Alexander Dugin, who have burst into the mainstream in recent months. In recent television appearances, Dugin has all but pleaded with Putin to send troops into eastern Ukraine, or "New Russia" as he calls it. He says Putin made an implicit promise to support ethnic Russians there and that Russians have taken Putin at his word.
Dugin has expressed increasing frustation with the Russian leader. And there's some speculation that if the crash investigation forces the Kremlin to distance itself from pro-Russians rebels in Ukraine, Putin could face a backlash at home.
But there are some in Russia who worry that with all the geopolitical gamesmanship, the human scale of the tragedy is getting lost. Ouside the Dutch Embassy on a quiet street in Moscow, Russians have been coming daily to lay flowers and light candles to honor the crash victims. Yulia, a local medical researcher, was among them.
She says she wishes the Ukrainians, the Russians — everyone — would all come to their senses.