The destruction of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine may not have been intended by Russia or the militants it has supported and armed. But their behavior since the downing of the plane has been a lesson in barbarity and morally contemptible statecraft.
While its proxies, commanded by some of its own citizens, did their best to cover up the atrocity, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied the obvious, employing a blatantly mendacious propaganda campaign.
These tactics have prompted angry statements from President Obama and European leaders. But more Western rhetoric is not what is needed now.
Rebels who control the region where the plane was downed finally appeared to be taking steps toward cooperating with the Malaysian government and other international authorities. But a Dutch forensics expert said Tuesday that the remains of nearly one-third of the victims of the doomed flight were missing from a train carrying bodies and black boxes to a Ukrainian city.
In any event, nothing can compensate for the militants’ behavior in the four days after a Russian-supplied anti-aircraft battery on their territory shot down the airliner. According to reports, they prohibited international investigators from reaching the site, haphazardly loaded bodies onto train cars, and looted the personal effects of victims.
In Moscow, Mr. Putin disappeared from view after making a statement blaming the downing on the Ukrainian government, on the absurd grounds that Kiev had dared to fight back against the infiltrators dispatched and armed by his regime. Moscow’s propaganda apparatus then swung into action, producing a blizzard of fake evidence and bizarre conspiracy theories to deflect responsibility.
At a Defense Ministry briefing, journalists were presented with concocted data purporting to show that the Malaysian flight could have been shot down by a Ukrainian warplane. That lie is all the more bold because of the ease with which it can be disproved.
This rogue-state behavior is practiced not by an acknowledged pariah nation, but by an accepted member of the Group of 20 that aspires to be treated by the West as an economic and strategic partner. It follows the first forcible invasion and annexation of European territory since 1945, as well as a months-long covert campaign in which Russian military operatives, mercenaries, and heavy weapons have entered eastern Ukraine.
The United States and the European Union have been too tactical and too tolerant in responding to Russia’s new barbarism. President Obama says he is still focused on “investigating exactly what happened” — even though the evidence of Russian responsibility is abundant. He has had nothing tangible to say about consequences.
He and European leaders say their objective is a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. That would likely freeze in place the men and weapons Russia has sent there, and make it virtually impossible for Kiev to regain control over the territory.
What’s needed is a broad strategy for stopping Mr. Putin’s aggression and, where possible, rolling it back. That begins with penalties to inflict damage on the Russian economy, such as the “sectoral” sanctions Mr. Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel threatened months ago but never deployed. Military measures are also necessary, including rapidly supplying the Ukrainian army with the material it seeks.
It’s time to treat Mr. Putin’s Russia as what it has become — a dangerous outlaw regime that needs to be contained.