It’s not just the Russians who are spouting conspiracy theories about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Americans far right and far left have joined the chorus, propagating the notion that it's the U.S., not Russia, that is ultimately responsible for the catastrophe.
Former Republican Congressman Ron Paul, well-known for his incendiary dispatches, leads the pack. Enraged by the mainstream media’s supposedly negligent reporting of the plane crash, Paul on Sunday published a long indictment of the American press, “What the Mainstream Media Won’t Report About Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.” Chief among the media's alleged failures: “They will not report that the crisis in Ukraine started late last year, when EU and US-supported protesters plotted the overthrow of the elected Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Without US-sponsored ‘regime change,’ it is unlikely that hundreds would have been killed in the unrest that followed. Nor would the Malaysian Airlines crash have happened.”
Leaving aside the lie that the media “will not report” that the crisis started in November 2013, Paul’s overarching message is one we’ve heard before. It’s the same one that The Nation’s Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel invoked back in May, when they suggested that Washington has secretly and silently become complicit in Obama’s effort to start a new Cold War. As The New Republic's Julia Ioffe wrote of the couple’s critique, “The moral imperative of sticking it to Washington and American hegemony is so pressing, so important, that, in true revolutionary fashion, the facts can easily be subsumed under the greater mission.”
But Paul’s disregard for facts far outpaces that of Cohen and vanden Heuvel. He writes that the mainstream media "will not report that the post-coup government in Kiev has, according to OSCE monitors, killed 250 people in the breakaway Lugansk region since June, including 20 killed as government forces bombed the city center the day after the plane crash! Most of these are civilians and together they roughly equal the number killed in the plane crash. By contrast, Russia has killed no one in Ukraine, and the separatists have struck largely military, not civilian, targets.” The only thing that matters is that Russia has killed no one in Ukraine; it just armed and trained and let surreptitious “volunteer” forces cross into Ukraine to do the killing on Russia’s behalf.
It might be prudent to dismiss the ramblings of someone who has also professed in writing that “Sodomy = Death” and attacked “The X-Rated Martin Luther King.” But Paul is not the only one making pronouncements that let Putin off the hook for “creat[ing] the conditions” not only for crash of MH17, but also for the entire conflict in Ukraine. His line of argument has been sprouting everywhere on the fringes.
Former Congressman Allen West professed, one day after the plane went down, that the person truly responsible for the fate of MH17 is not Russian President Vladimir Putin, but President Barack Obama. “The blood on Vladimir Putin’s hands was poured by Barack Obama, who is indirectly responsible, accountable and no different than Neville Chamberlain’s weakness in the face of the 20th Century maniacal dictator Adolf Hitler. So much for no drama Obama. He is purposefully creating drama globally,” West wrote.
Most egregious might be Scott McConnell, writing in The American Conservative, who suggests that Putin, having armed the separatists with the surface-to-air missile that took down the plane, should merely “acknowledge the error, and express regrets. Yet the source of the Ukraine crisis remains exactly what it was before the downing of MA-17: an aggressive Western move to wrest Ukraine into the Western sphere, culminating eventually in Ukrainian NATO membership.” It’s an extraordinarily patronizing view: The Ukrainian people could never have mustered the strength to rid themselves of a corrupt, oppressive government—the West must have done it for them.
Stephen Cohen disciple James Carden, writing in The Nation, appears to be of the same mind. “Could the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 have been avoided?” Carden, who once advised the State Department on U.S.-Russia relations, believes so: if only the West hadn’t been so meddlesome, if only Ukraine was not so intent on defending its sovereignty. He then offers a “counterfactual” for consideration: “What if Mr. Obama had not announced a new round of sanctions against Russia on July 16? It is entirely possible that the murderous recklessness of the pro-Russian forces would have given Mr. Putin sufficient cover from his increasingly vocal right flank—who have been calling for greater Russian involvement, if not an outright invasion—to break with the rebels. What the July 16 sanctions announcement has done is effectively block the off-ramp.”
Carden essentially is asking: What if Obama had just let Putin continue covertly fomenting violence in Ukraine, ensuring that the situation in the east would remain a frozen conflict, like all the others Putin is fueling in the region? There are no indications that Putin was seeking an “off-ramp” in Ukraine—he remains as committed to the mission of discrediting the Maidan revolution and the government it elected as ever—and the idea that the modest U.S. sanctions were enough to change his calculus either way is wishful thinking. They were imposed in reaction to evidence of continued Russian aggression in Ukraine—on July 14, two days before new sanctions were announced, rebels shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane with a surface-to-air missile, the fifteenth Ukrainian plane they’d taken down up to that point.
These writers would have you think that it’s the U.S., not Russia, that is ultimately responsible for killing the 298 people aboard MH17—that this whole conflict, as Ioffe has written, is not about Ukraine or even about Russia’s goals of dominating the post-Soviet world, but about America. In doing so, they lend credence to the defensive crouch Russia has taken in response to the MH17 tragedy.
Addressing his security council this week, Putin spelled out the “ultimatum” the West has forced upon him: “Either you let us destroy the part of the population that is ethnically, culturally, and historically close to Russia, or we introduce sanctions against you. This is a strange logic, and absolutely unacceptable, of course.” Russia would try to influence the separatists, he said, but it can only do so much. Instead, Russia must focus on protecting itself from the dangerous encroachment of Western forces toward its borders: “Attempts are clearly being made to destabilize the social and economic situation, to weaken Russia in one way or another or to strike at our weaker spots,” Putin said.
Russia, as Putin would have it, is a beleaguered, marginalized, but strong country being unfairly persecuted for taking back its rightful territory in Ukraine. It's the kind of disingenuous rhetoric we've come to expect from the Russian president. But how embarrassing that Paul, McConnell, and Carden actually believe it.