The strain of the past 24 hours was clearly visible in Barack Obama’s face Friday morning as he addressed the press on the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
“This was a global tragedy,” the president said. “There has to be a credible international investigation into what happened. The UN Security Council has endorsed this investigation, and we will hold all its members, including Russia, to their word.”
Obama called for an immediate cease-fire in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine to facilitate the recovery of the victims and the inspection of evidence.
But inspecting the area has been difficult. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said they could not gain secure access to the crash site Friday and will try again Saturday.
Obama said one American citizen, Quinn Lucas Schansman, has been confirmed dead. The Netherlands lost 189 citizens, while Canada, Germany, the UK, Malaysia, Indonesia and others all had citizens aboard the flight.
The president called for patience as the investigation goes forward.
“We have to be sure that we don’t get out ahead of the facts,” he said in an answer to a reporter’s question. “We don’t know exactly what happened.”
But Obama did stress that Russia has to answer in some way for what happened.
The plane was brought down by a missile that originated in a disputed territory in eastern Ukraine now held by pro-Russian separatists, he said.
“It is not possible to function the way [the separatists] are functioning without sophisticated equipment and training,” the president said. “That is coming from Russia.”
Russia blames Ukraine. Ukraine’s government claims it was an “act of international terrorism” and “Russian aggression.” The pro-Russian rebels say they lack the capability to down an aircraft flying as high as MH17 — around 33,000 feet.
Yet much of the world appears to have concluded that Russia is to blame. Now the question is what to do about it.
“It's a game-changer in that it drags in the outside world, but it's hard to see what the consequences of this could be,” Julia Ioffe writes in The New Republic. “Even if and when the evidence is marshalled to point to the rebels, what can the West do to punish them? What can it do to punish Russia for giving them these capabilities? What can it do to end the conflict?”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has a suggestion: Give the Ukrainian government the weapons it’s been asking for.
“Changing President Putin's calculations will … require a long-term effort to support Ukraine in rebuilding and reforming its armed forces,” he said in a statement Thursday. “That effort needs to start immediately with the provision of weapons, including anti-tank and anti-air capabilities, which Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly requested. It is shameful that the Administration continues to refuse to provide our Ukrainian partners with the military capabilities they both want and need.”
According to McCain, it makes no difference whether the missile that downed the plane was fired from Russia itself or by the separatists.
“They are one and the same,” he told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
Hillary Clinton echoed this conclusion in her interview with Charlie Rose, broadcast Thursday evening. The formers secretary of state assigned responsibility for the disaster to “Russian insurgents.”
“Putin has gone too far,” Clinton said.
“Whenever something happens that we don’t like, we blame Putin. But there are a lot of different forces in eastern Ukraine who are not taking their orders from Putin.”
But it’s a mistake to hold Putin accountable for everything happening in eastern Ukraine, said Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and a managing partner at Kissinger Associates.
“We have persuaded ourselves that nothing happens in eastern Ukraine that Putin does not control,” he said. “So whenever something happens that we don’t like, we blame Putin. But there are a lot of different forces in eastern Ukraine who are not taking their orders from Putin.”
That will most likely not stop US officials from trying to punish the Russian president, particularly now that there is a confirmed American victim.
“The shooting down … of a passenger airliner is an act of terror,” Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Daily Beast.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) called it “an act of war,” and called for a firm response.
“Whoever did it should pay a full price,” he said.
This reaction corresponds poorly to the administration’s more measured response.
“This is no time for propaganda, no time for games,” Obama said Friday. “I made clear to President Putin that our preferred path is to resolve this diplomatically.”
But the hysteria may be getting ahead of the facts.
Forbes magazine on Friday published a piece it originally called “Now that it’s clear that Putin is a mass murderer it’s time for the Western press to stop protecting him.”
Perhaps fearing that the title was too provocative, it has now been toned down a bit. In it, contributor Greg Satell, a journalist who worked in Kyiv, argues that Putin must be held accountable.
“So far, all of the evidence points to what most Ukrainians have long known ... Russia has become a state sponsor of terror.”
This type of rhetoric is not helpful, according to Graham.
“The problem is that there have been a lot of accusations with almost no information,” he said. “This reflects our prejudices more than a desire to find out what really happened.”
It is still far from clear whose finger pushed the button that brought down the Malaysian airliner. But evidence is pointing to a tragic mistake.
“I feel the overwhelming odds are that MH17 was shot down by a Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile fired by the rebels [but supplied by the Russians],” wrote Mark Galeotti, a professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and an expert on Russian security affairs.
“The Buk is a radar-guided missile, so it could quite possibly have been launched without any eyeballing of the target. Furthermore, while the rebels may have the Buk’s radar targeting system, they lack the extensive radar network and, above all, the skilled sensor operators who might have been able to tell a passenger airliner from a government troop plane.”
The US is no stranger to such incidents: In 1988 a US Navy ship shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing all 290 people on board. US operators thought they were targeting an Iranian fighter jet.
The US ultimately paid compensation to the victims’ families, but never admitted culpability.
> But it does not matter whether this was intentional or not, says McCain.
"If [the crash] is the result of either separatist or Russian actions mistakenly believing that this is a Ukrainian warplane, I think there's going to be hell to pay and there should be."
The question is, who’s paying?