MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin is missing a golden opportunity by not disowning the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Instead, as pro-Putin media and social network trolls invent increasingly fantastical versions of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, Russia risks becoming a pariah even to developing countries that have sympathized with its anti-American stance.
"The state over whose territory this happened bears responsibility for this horrible tragedy," Putin said Friday as he opened a meeting on the economy in Moscow. So his reaction to the death of 298 people on board the Malaysia Airlines jet is to blame the Ukrainian authorities, who, he said, shouldn't have "resumed military action in the southeast of Ukraine."
It is difficult, however, to convincingly lay blame for MH17 at Ukraine's door, because the pro-Russian rebels are the ones who have been shooting down aircraft in the area: They have no warplanes of their own, and anti-aircraft weapons are their only way to counteract the government forces' supremacy in the air. Ukraine's military, by contrast, have nothing to shoot at that has wings.
The Russian propaganda machine is struggling to deal with this simple fact. So far, the following versions have surfaced:
? The Ukrainians launched a missile hoping to shoot down Putin's own plane. "A source in the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency" told the Interfax news agency that the Malaysian jet and Putin's specially modified Il-96 briefly passed the same spot 10,100 meters (33,100 feet) over Poland on Thursday, and the two planes look alike from a distance: both are big and decorated with red, white and blue stripes. "Considering the schizophrenia in Kiev political circles, this version does not appear absurd," pro-Putin TV host Vitaly Tretyakov wrote on Livejournal.
? The residents of Grabovo, a village near the crash site, saw a warplane in the sky "several minutes before the crash." They also saw it "launch several missiles." Then debris started raining down. Other Russian media quote rebel representatives saying with certainty that a Ukrainian fighter plane was responsible.
? The other Malaysian Airlines loss, Flight MH370, which mysteriously disappeared in March, was hijacked with a view to staging a provocation against Russia and now, finally, has been used. The bodies at the crash site are those of MH370 passengers: they're partially decomposed and the European passports found strewn on the ground are suspiciously new.
? A Spanish air traffic controller working in Ukraine said on Twitter that Ukrainians shot down the plane. The Ukrainian authorities then threatened him so he wouldn't disclose the truth. (Twitter closed down the account after ascertaining there was no such air traffic controller in Kiev).
I may have missed a few other colorful myths, but the general plan is clear: to sow doubt in the minds of ordinary Russians. "The more versions, the less clear it is, the less clear it is, the more time there is to work out the final version that will later become canonical," columnist Oleg Kashin wrote on svpressa.ru.
As Kashin also points out, it isn't Russian TV that writes the canonical version of events internationally. In the eyes of the world, Putin is as guilty as he is portrayed on Friday's front page of the British tabloid, The Sun. If Putin keeps backing the insurgents until their inevitable defeat, his international isolation will deepen, as did that of the Soviet Union's leaders after their jets shot down a Korean passenger jet in 1983, and former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi after the 1988 bombing of a PanAm airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. Malaysia, a Muslim nation that has long fought American influence, can hardly be expected to listen to Russian fairy-tales about the crash. The developing world will now join the West in condemning the rebels - and Putin as their only ally.
"It's one thing to be the modest helper of some rebels," former Russian diplomat Alexander Baunov wrote on Facebook. "It's another thing to help insurgents who have perpetrated one of the biggest terrorist attacks in the history of aviation."
By disowning the rebels immediately - in the form of criminal proceedings against the Russian citizens among them, the immediate withdrawal of any Russian aid for them and a public admission that it was their activity that led to the downing of MH17 - Putin could abandon the losing side while saving face.
The window of opportunity for Putin to escape this losing war is shrinking, however, and he is unlikely to get a better chance.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Moscow-based contributor to Bloomberg View.