THE destruction of Malaysian airliner MH17 - and the loss of 298 lives over Eastern Ukraine, among them 37 Australian citizens and residents - is a tragedy and a crime.
The Abbott government has been quick to sheet home responsibility to both ethnic Russian separatists in Ukraine and to Moscow. But in a volatile situation, caution must be exercised before attributing blame.
Within hours of the downing of MH17, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk denounced the "Russian-led terrorists", "bastards, who committed this international crime . . . against humanity", which he called a "war against Ukraine, against Europe . . . against the world. Everyone who supports these terrorists," he declared, "has to be accountable and responsible . . . including [the] Russian Federation and [the] Russian regime."
Rightly describing the killing of 298 civilians as an "outrage of unspeakable proportions", US President Barack Obama pointed his finger at Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine using a surface-to-air missile to bring down the plane, all but directly blaming Moscow. US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton more bluntly declared: "Putin has gone too far."
In advance of Mrs Clinton, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott insisted that Russian denial of any responsibility for the crash "frankly does not stand up to any serious scrutiny": MH17 was shot down "over territory controlled by Russian-backed rebels" and "by a missile which seems to have been launched by Russian-backed rebels". Mr Abbott went on to warn that Russia would lose "any international standing" if it blocked an impartial investigation. Russia has reportedly reacted "furiously" to Mr Abbott's accusations.
Nevertheless, Mr Abbott dispatched Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop to New York to pursue a UN Security Council Resolution for a full and open investigation. Such a resolution has now been adopted unanimously.
Not surprisingly, the Russian government and pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine have rejected any responsibility. On the contrary, Mr Putin has pointed his finger at Kiev, declaring that "of course, the state over whose territory this happened is responsible for this terrible tragedy" which would not have occurred if "military activities had not resumed in the south-east of Ukraine".
The chorus of accusations against Russia coming from the so-called "international community" fits a long-standing, deep-seated, Western hostility towards Moscow that preceded the anti-communist Cold War. Accusations that Moscow is responsible for the current civil war in the Ukraine are at odds with the record of events since November.
Far from Mr Putin stoking the flames of Ukrainian separatism, with the notable exception of his annexation of Crimea, he has been cautious in dealing with the West, Kiev and Russian separatism.
If responsibility for the upheaval lies anywhere, it is with Washington and Western Europe; particularly NATO, as it has marched eastward: nine former Warsaw Pact nations and three former Soviet republics have been incorporated into NATO. Given the catastrophic Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union during the Second World War, it is not surprising that Moscow has viewed the prospect of Kiev falling into Europe's and NATO's orbit with alarm.
The immediate trigger for the current crisis was the ousting on February 22 of the elected, Russian sympathising Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The acquiescence of 28 EU foreign ministers in this veritable coup d'état saw a pre-emptive strike by Mr Putin as Russia occupied, and subsequently annexed, overwhelmingly Russian-speaking Crimea. Ratified on March 1 by a referendum, incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation secured Russia's vital Sebastopol Black Sea naval base.
Despite fears that this was the beginning of Russian expansion into Ukraine, and the expectations of ethnic Russians in south-east Ukraine that Russia would come to their aid against what they both see as a fascist regime in Kiev, Mr Putin has shown no such ambitions.
Moscow did not recognise the May 11 declaration of independence by the so-called People's Republic of Donetsk. Other than Russian military manoeuvres on Ukraine's borders, Mr Putin has not lifted a political or military finger to support ethnic Russians, causing some to accuse him of cowardice and betrayal.
Far from from being belligerent, Mr Putin has been accommodating: recognising the pro-European President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko and urging an end to armed hostilities. Notwithstanding his Russian patriotic rhetoric, Mr Putin's priorities are Russian national security and stability, not the occupation or break up of Ukraine.
The downing of MH17 has provided a pretext for both Kiev and Washington to pressure their European allies to take a stronger stance against Russia, particularly a reluctant Germany. A wake up call to Europe, President Obama has called this tragic event. But such a call can only raise international tensions. Hopefully, the Security Council resolution condemning the downing of MH17 and calling for a full, thorough and independent international investigation will ease these tensions.
Roger Markwick is Associate Professor of History at the University of Newcastle, where he will take part in a forum – Ukraine and Russia: Roots of the Current Crisis – on August 1