Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the "last chance saloon" over the Ukraine crisis, but appears to be doing little to get out of it.
Since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was brought down over east Ukraine, Putin has been under intense international pressure to persuade pro-Russian separatists accused by the West of shooting it down to stop fighting.
However, for now he seems more intent on bluffing his way through than on trying to use this pivotal moment to emerge as a peacemaker by ending a conflict that has caused the worst tensions with the West since the Cold War.
“The only sensible step now would be to stop the fighting in Ukraine immediately and begin a political process,” said Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank. “The tragic and sudden loss of so many innocent lives should put a final point to the armed conflict. Or it may put the international conflict over Ukraine on a much higher and more dangerous level. The choice is still to be made, but the time is running out fast.”
There is no evidence that Putin has made that choice, and he continues to keep the world guessing about his next moves.
There is also no sign of a major change of tack by the Russian leader since the airliner was brought down on Thursday, killing 298 people.
Putin, who denies supplying arms to the rebels, has made muted calls for a ceasefire and demanded an independent investigation in telephone conversations with Western leaders.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went so far as to say Moscow and Washington should use their influence with the rival sides to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine. But there is no sign of any change in the rebels’ behaviour and the president has made no public appeal to them or called for new moves to tighten controls at Russia’s border, where Washington says arms are getting into Ukraine.
Most Russian media are painting a very different picture of events to Western leaders and Putin’s allies have rallied around him, blaming the incident on Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders and accusing Washington of orchestrating events in Kiev.
The former KGB spy is being pushed into a corner by statements by Western leaders that this is his last chance to do something to end the crisis in Ukraine or face more sanctions.
If the rebels are confirmed irrefutably to have shot down the airliner with a missile that came from Russia, Putin could go from being seen as an outsider in global diplomacy to being treated as an international pariah.
Recalling the Lockerbie bombing that was blamed on Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, political analyst Yulia Latynina said: “In one fell swoop we have been caught up with Gaddafi and (Osama) bin Laden.”
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