Separatists have been targeting Ukrainian military aircraft in recent days.
In all likelihood, the deaths of 298 passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the Russia/Ukraine border Thursday will turn out to have been a tragic mistake — the product, as in past such incidents, of high tensions and quick trigger fingers.
For the moment, at least, the available facts seem to point in that direction, with an obvious set of suspects: pro-Russia rebels who've been seen in the area with truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles, or in a more troubling scenario, Russian military units.
The separatists have been targeting Ukrainian military aircraft in recent days. U.S. intelligence confirmed the Malaysia jet was brought down by a missile (though without pinpointing its launch point). And Ukrainian intelligence released an audio tape it said was a separatist commander telling a Russian military intelligence official, "We have just shot down a plane." The plane was also flying from Ukraine into Russia, making it a likely target.
As solid as that theory could prove to be, rushing to judgment would be counterproductive.
Time will be needed to sort out the specifics, bring guilty parties to justice and work out reparations. Not only that, the international outrage set off by the incident provides a new opening to cool the recently reheated conflict — or if mishandled, do the opposite. In a wildly optimistic interpretation, it would change the calculus of the man who is singularly responsible: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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Since seizing Crimea more than four months ago, Putin has executed a strategy of disruption and stealth invasion that has ignited a civil war, killed civilians and led inexorably to a tragedy like this. When you set loose secret military units and mix them with extremist local thugs, excess and brutality are the guaranteed outcomes, if not part of the plan.
On Thursday, Putin ritually shed crocodile tears for the victims of Flight 17, but there's plenty for him to do about it if he wants.
Most urgently, he can cooperate with efforts to mount a credible international investigation. The wreckage is in territory held by separatists, and Putin has enough sway to ensure they will protect any investigators who might be sent in.
Even more usefully — but much less probably — he could reverse his aggression, which just this week drew new rounds of sanctions from the U.S. and Europe. There is a formula for ending the increasingly brutal conflict by decentralizing significant power to provinces, but it cannot happen unless Putin brings his thugs to heel.
The West, in turn, needs to calm the Ukranian side, not use the incident as an excuse to feed arms into the conflict, as some were suggesting Thursday.
It's worth remembering that the U.S. Navy once made a similar mistake. In 1988, the guided missile cruiser Vincennes mistook an Iranian passenger jet for an attacking fighter and shot it down, killing all 290 people aboard. The Navy blamed the incident on combat stress.
The U.S. and Iran managed their way past the incident without a major confrontation — an example that would be wisely heeded now.
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