The world rightly turned its anger and attention Friday to who should be held accountable for shooting down a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 over war-torn Ukraine. All signs point to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While only a prompt, independent investigation can determine exactly how this tragedy happened, Russia laid the groundwork by fanning the separatist uprising across its border. Russia supplied the rockets and probably the expertise to fire them even if it turns out Ukrainian separatists pulled the trigger. The world should hold Russia accountable for this latest loss of innocent life and work harder on ending a war that is not about liberation but Russia's ambitions.
The jetliner was blown out of the sky Thursday on a much-used and approved flight path from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. In a preliminary report Friday, U.S. intelligence agencies said the attack was carried out using a Russian missile by pro-Russian separatists who control that area of eastern Ukraine. The downing follows two attacks this week by the separatists against Ukrainian military aircraft, including the downing Monday of a military transport plane. The Ukrainian government released what it claimed were audiotapes of intercepted telephone calls between the rebels and Russian advisers in which the separatists admitted to downing a civilian airliner.
President Barack Obama, confirming Friday that one U.S. citizen was among 298 killed in the attack, struck the right note in calling for prompt access to the accident site by international investigators. And he was right to caution against a rush to judgment on who fired at the plane and with what intent. Still, he underscored the larger issue of Moscow's interference with Ukraine's internal affairs. The empathy he showed to the victims and to the concept of self-determination in Ukraine stood in sharp contrast to the attempt by Russian officials Friday to put the blame on Malaysia Airlines for flying over a combat zone.
Whether the fingerprints on the missile launcher belong to the separatists or their Russian handlers is immaterial. This is Putin's war. It was the Russian leader who has bullied Ukraine into choosing between Moscow and the West. It was the Russian leader who annexed Crimea and has sustained the civil war by inflaming and arming the rebel side. Putin has talked peace even as he has used the separatists' military gains as leverage to violate the integrity of a sovereign state. The attack showed one of two things: either a resurgent Russia undeterred by political and economic sanctions so far, or a rebel movement with the firepower and disregard for civilian life that nobody expected.
A cease-fire in Ukraine would create the conditions necessary to bring an international team of investigators to the crash site. The Ukrainian government, the separatists and Russia should work to secure the debris field and the airplane's voice and data recorders. The United States and Europe also need to prepare a much tougher sanctions package than the ones already imposed on Russia. Whoever launched Thursday's attack should pay heavily, and the tragedy should also bolster the world community's resolve to end the war.