Downed plane could alter course of Ukraine fight

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Downed plane could alter course of Ukraine flight
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Downed plane could alter course of Ukraine fight
FILE - In this July 17, 2014 file photo, people inspect the crash site of a passenger plane near the village of Hrabove, Ukraine. The downing of the jet could prove to be a turning point in the country's conflict. But which way it turns depends mainly on who carried out the attack and how convincingly it can be proved to the world. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Remnants of a downed Ukrainian army aircraft Il-76 at the airport near Luhansk, Ukraine, Saturday, June 14, 2014. Pro-Russian separatists shot down the military transport plane Saturday in the country’s restive east, killing all 49 service personnel on board, Ukrainian officials said. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
A pro-Russian fighter carries parts of weapons from the site of remnants of a downed Ukrainian army aircraft Il-76 at the airport near Luhansk, Ukraine, Saturday, June 14, 2014. Pro-Russian separatists shot down the military transport plane Saturday in the country’s restive east, killing all 49 service personnel on board, Ukrainian officials said. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - JULY 18: Search and rescue team search for human remains amongst the wreckages of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it was downed close to Russia's border with Ukraine on July 17, 2014, near the town of Donetsk, Ukraine on July 18, 2014. (Photo by Soner Kilinc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - JULY 18: People prepare white ribbon tied to a stick which indicates the presence of human remains, amongst the wreckages of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it was downed close to Russia's border with Ukraine on July 17, 2014, near the town of Donetsk, Ukraine on July 18, 2014. (Photo by Soner Kilinc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONESTK, UKRAINE - JULY 18: A monkey toy is seen amongst the wreckages of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it was downed close to Russia's border with Ukraine on July 17, 2014, near the town of Donetsk, Ukraine on July 18, 2014. (Photo by Soner Kilinc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
People gather next to a sign reading AIDS 2014 in Melbourne on July 18, 2014 after news that downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was carrying many participants headed to the 20th International AIDS Conference planned this weekend in the Australian city. The world AIDS community was in mourning on July 18 with as many as 100 passengers reportedly on the crashed Malaysia Airlines plane heading to Australia for the global conference on the epidemic. Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which US officials believe was hit by a surface-to-air missile, killing all 298 people on board, was due to connect with another flight to Melbourne. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - JULY 18: A part of plane is seen amongst the wreckages of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it was downed close to Russia's border with Ukraine on July 17, 2014, near the town of Donetsk, Ukraine on July 18, 2014. (Photo by Soner Kilinc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
People lay flowers and light candles in front of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kiev on July 17, 2014, to commemorate passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur which crashed in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on July 17 that the Malaysia Airlines jet that crashed over rebel-held eastern Ukraine may have been shot down.' Ukraine's government and pro-Russian insurgents traded blame for the disaster, with comments attributed to a rebel commander suggesting his men may have downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by mistake, believing it was a Ukrainian army transport plane. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
A man lights a candle in front of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kiev on July 17, 2014, to commemorate passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur which crashed in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on July 17 that the Malaysia Airlines jet that crashed over rebel-held eastern Ukraine may have been shot down.' Ukraine's government and pro-Russian insurgents traded blame for the disaster, with comments attributed to a rebel commander suggesting his men may have downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by mistake, believing it was a Ukrainian army transport plane. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman lights a candle near a placard reading 'Stop Russian terrorism!' in front of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kiev on July 17, 2014 to commemorate passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur which crashed in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on July 17 that the Malaysia Airlines jet that crashed over rebel-held eastern Ukraine may have been shot down.' Ukraine's government and pro-Russian insurgents traded blame for the disaster, with comments attributed to a rebel commander suggesting his men may have downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by mistake, believing it was a Ukrainian army transport plane. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
A relative of passengers on flight MH17 wipes his eyes as he waits in a bus to be transported to an unknown location to receive more information, at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, Thursday, July 17, 2014. Ukraine said a passenger plane carrying 295 people was shot down Thursday as it flew over the country, and both the government and the pro-Russia separatists fighting in the region denied any responsibility for downing the plane. (AP Photo/Phil Nijhuis)
BERLIN, GERMANY - JULY 18: A temporary memorial for the 298 victims of shot down Malaysian jetliner Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur the previous evening is seen outside of the embassy of the Netherlands, on July 18, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it crashed killing all 298 on board including 80 children. The aircraft was allegedly shot down by a missile and investigations continue over the perpetrators of the attack. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)
Alexander Hug, (R) Deputy Chief Monitor of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe's (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, talks with a Pro-Russian separatist at the site of the crash of a Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in Grabove, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on July 18, 2014. Members of the UN Security Council demanded a full, independent investigation into the apparent shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
Alexander Hug, (2R) Deputy Chief Monitor of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe's (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine and members of his team wait to visit the site of the crash of a Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in Grabove, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on July 18, 2014. Members of the UN Security Council demanded a full, independent investigation into the apparent shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
People laiy flowers and light candles in front of the Netherlands Embassy in Kiev on July 18, 2014 in tribute for the 298 people who died after flight MH17 of Malaysia Airlines crashed in rebel-held east Ukraine. The Boeing 777 came down in cornfields in the separatist-held region yesterday, spraying debris and body parts for kilometres around, with the United States claiming it was shot down in a missile attack. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
A piece of wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is pictured on July 18, 2014 in Shaktarsk, the day after it crashed. Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which US officials believe was hit by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman lays flowers near a sign reading 'Putin kills children' in front of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kiev on July 18, 2014 to pay tribute to the 298 people who died after flight MH17 of Malaysia Airlines crashed in rebel-held east Ukraine. The Boeing 777 came down in cornfields in the separatist-held region yesterday, spraying debris and body parts for kilometres around, with the United States claiming it was shot down in a missile attack. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Huib Gorter, senior vice-president of Malaysia Airlines, speaks at a press conference at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, Thursday, July 17, 2014. An official with Malaysia Airlines says at least one Canadian was among the 295 people aboard a passenger plane that was downed today over Ukraine. Gorter says 154 people were Dutch, 27 were Australians, 23 were Malaysians, 11 were Indonesian, 6 were from the United Kingdom, 4 were from Germany, 4 were from Belgium, and 3 were from the Philippines. Gorter says authorities are still trying to determine the nationalities of the rest of the passengers. (AP Photo/Phil Nijhuis)
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By Angela Charlton
PARIS (AP) -- The downing of a passenger jet in Ukraine could prove to be a turning point in the country's conflict. But which way it turns depends mainly on who carried out the attack and how convincingly it can be proved to the world.

With suspicion falling heavily on pro-Russian insurgents, the event could provide an opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to disengage from his increasingly uncontrollable allies in eastern Ukraine.

But if enough doubt persists, positions could harden in both Russia and the West. The West could toughen its sanctions against Russia and help Ukraine's military, prompting Putin to dig in for an even higher-stakes battle.

The disaster has already drawn the world closer into the Ukraine conflict, the worst crisis between Russia and the West in a generation.

It also made the fighting painfully real for families from Australia to Amsterdam whose relatives were on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. And it revealed a danger that most people hadn't contemplated: rebels able to strike beyond their own homeland by pointing conventional weapons toward the skies.

WEAKENING THE INSURGENCY

Definitive proof that the insurgents are at fault could be a crucial step toward defusing the months-long conflict, discrediting them so badly that Russia's leadership distances itself from the rebels and their movement fizzles.

Even before the plane was downed, Putin faced competing pressures at home. Some in his administration were urging him to take a more forceful hand in supporting the rebels, while others urged him to step away.

If the rebels can be shown to have committed an act that horrified the world, the doves would likely see their position strengthened. But Putin-watchers caution that with the Russian president, you never really know.

Any change would probably be gradual, especially because Putin has always denied any direct role in supporting the rebels.

HARDENING THE INSURGENCY

It will be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to prove definitively who shot down the Boeing 777 and why. This is an unusually tough investigation in a region where no one is really in charge, propaganda trumps truth and every announcement seems to have an ulterior motive.

If enough doubt remains about who shot down the plane, Russia could plausibly continue to quietly support the rebels, especially as many Russians believe the Ukrainian government was responsible for the attack.

Of course, that would bring consequences for Russia. In Washington, some lawmakers are already pushing President Barack Obama to get tougher on Russia and crank up the sanctions. European leaders face similar calls.

The West might even increase its military aid to Ukraine. And it's anyone's guess where those hostilities might lead.

BAD PRECEDENTS

Few passenger airliners have ever been shot down - and when they are, it can cause lasting political damage.

A U.S. warship mistakenly shot down an Iranian jet in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war, killing 290 people and prompting widespread anger at U.S. policy and years of legal dispute.

The downing of a Korean Airlines flight by Soviet forces in 1983 and the loss of 269 lives sparked one of the tensest moments of the Cold War and led to an escalation of anti-Soviet sentiment in the U.S. The man in charge of the Soviet Union at the time, Yuri Andropov, was a hero of Putin's.

FROZEN CONFLICT

Lingering uncertainty about Flight 17 could lead to yet another option: condemning eastern Ukraine to a frozen conflict, like others around Russia's edges.

It may take days or longer to know what Putin plans to do. A dragged-out, inconclusive investigation could leave things just as they are, serving Russia's interests by preserving economic ties between eastern Ukraine and Russia and effectively scotching any Ukrainian attempt to join NATO.

The world may never know what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared over the Indian Ocean this year. And it's possible that the motive behind the downing of Flight 17 could remain a mystery as well.

Whether it does could well determine the future of Ukraine.

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