Speculation that a bomb brought down the doomed Russian jet over the Sinai has gone from leaks to official pronouncements, with British Prime Minister David Cameron now declaring that it is “more likely than not” that terrorists were to blame. Interestingly, Russia is not only more cautious in its assessments, it reportedly finds it “shocking” that Britain has not “shared the evidence” of a bomb attack. Is Russia truly being prudent and thorough in its investigation, or is something else going on? Does Russia have an interest in maintaining that the crash was due to mechanical failure? Indeed, there are reports that the Russian government and the airline are clashing over the cause of the crash. The airline is increasingly ruling out “pilot error” or “technical defects,” while the government is calling such judgments “premature.”
I don’t have any particular insights into the Putin regime’s mindset, but there are good reasons why it would hope its plane wasn’t brought down by a bomb. A bomb attack would show that ISIS has disturbing new capabilities. Moreover, the attack would represent a failure of Russian security and bring home the cost of Russian military actions. It may be wrong to simply assume that Russians will rally around the flag (and Putin) under such circumstances. Already they’re suffering under western economic sanctions, and if they don’t see air travel as secure, could they start to tire of his aggressive militarism? The Russian people have proven that they can withstand the most horrific of conditions when motivated to defend their country, but would they view contemporary events through the same prism? Perhaps not.
Or the Russians may simply be waiting for more solid evidence, when Putin will clearly name the enemy and launch an assault unlike anything ISIS has yet experienced — with the full backing of an enraged nation. If indeed a bomb did bring down the plane, it would surprise me if the Russian response was anything but decisive, but I’ve been surprised before. Russia’s caution could be the calm before the storm, it could represent true uncertainty about the cause of the crash, or it could demonstrate that Putin is unsure of his people’s response to a terrorist victory and civilian death. Time will tell.