Why Would Putin Shoot Down a Plane?

A woman writes messages during a special prayer for the victims of downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in Kuala Lumpur July 18, 2014. Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

With Russia and Ukraine blaming each other for shooting down a commercial airliner in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing all 298 people on board, a veteran American scholar of Russia sees Ukraine's fingerprints on the tragedy. The often-contrarian views of Stephen F. Cohen, a retired professor who taught Russian and Soviet politics at New York University and Princeton University and who is a longtime defender of Russia and Putin, come as the White House said Friday that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 Boeing 777 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile from a region controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Further pointing the finger at Russia, Samantha Power, President Obama's ambassador to the United Nations, told an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on Friday that the White House did not "rule out technical assistance by Russian personnel." Cohen spoke with Newsweek on Friday about the unfolding crisis:

[Related: The American Who Dared Make Putin's Case]

On motives:

"I always ask, Who had a motive? The Russians didn't have a motive, because it's a catastrophe for Putin. Pro-Russian rebels on the ground—it's not clear that they had the capacity. The Ukrainian government—they have the toys. The Ukrainian government has quite a few of those Buks. [A surface-to-air missile system, with multiple launchers, developed by the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and that the Ukrainian government said Thursday was used for the downing.] The fact that it's Russian-made isn't evidence that Russia is behind the crash. Lots of former Soviet republics have Russian-made stuff... So Ukraine had the capacity. Say it was playing with its new toys and made a big mistake...That's what happened in 2001. [when Ukraine mistakenly shot down a civilian airliner with a surface-to-air missile during a military exercise, killing all 78 passengers who were flying from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk.] Say [pro-Russian] rebels shot it down—it doesn't mean they got it from Putin.

"The White House is saying that Putin is guilty because the weapons made their way to Ukraine. That's half right—but it doesn't mean he controlled them. Possession of a weapon doesn't tell you who gave it to you."

On the Ukrainian military:

"Ukrainian soldiers are completely inept. They are incompetent and are selling things to the pro-Russian rebels."

On why a commercial airliner was flying over a known political hot zone:

"This has been an air war zone since at least July 1, [shortly after pro-Russian separatist forces boasted that they had captured a Ukrainian military base and at least one Buk air missile system. There have also been reports of Buk missiles fired—by who is not clear—at military planes and helicopters flying over eastern Ukraine.] It's outrageous that anybody would fly over Ukraine. If a pilot told me, we're going over eastern Ukraine, I'd say, I want off."

On the scores of pro-Russian Ukrainian civilians fleeing Ukrainian armed forces:

"The U.S. media has not covered or discussed what the Ukrainian government is doing to the eastern cities. Not one major media organization has been reporting regularly from those cities, and what's happening there is horrible. You have about 300,000 refugees who have crossed into Russia. Donetsk, Sloviansk, Kramatorsk [cities in pro-Russia eastern Ukraine] have been leveled or destroyed. When you attack a city, you kill kids and women. The casualties are far greater than those from the Malaysian crash."

On a potential ray of light:

"The pro-Russian separatists have said they're ready to declare a cease-fire. This would be extremely good. Then the people who have the wherewithal can start their negotiating."