MOSCOW — An assassination attempt against Russian President Vladimir Putin. A desperate ploy to draw the West into the battle for Ukraine's east. A botched mission to commit mass murder against Russian citizens.
Russian news consumers are getting plenty of explanations for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 people. While they vary wildly in content, all point the finger at Ukraine. None admits the possibility that Russia may bear responsibility.
The story of the airline tragedy that is unfolding for Russians differs starkly from the one that people are following in the West. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told American TV viewers that rebels shot down the plane with Russian weaponry, Russians were being fed a diet of scenarios about forces in Ukraine conspiring to commit an atrocity in the skies.
Yekaterina Andreyeva, one of Russia's most famous TV anchors, delved into one theory hours after news of the crash broke: Putin, traveling home from Brazil, passed along the same flight path as the Malaysian passenger jet less than one hour before it was hit — suggesting an assassination attempt.
"The presidential plane and the Malaysian Boeing crossed paths at the exact point and at the same flight level," said Andreyeva. "The shape of the plane and the length are absolutely similar, and their color would appear almost identical at such a distance."
By Friday morning, the assassination theory was replaced by other scenarios.
One focused on the Buk missile launcher that Ukraine says brought down the plane. State-owned Rossiya TV pinned blame on Kiev by saying the rebels did not own one, while Ukraine recently deployed a Buk launcher to the area. An Associated Press journalist saw a Buk launcher — which rebels have bragged about owning in social media — in rebel-held territory near the crash site hours before the plane was brought down.
Rossiya further said that the red, white, and blue of the Malaysia Airlines logo "resembles the Russian tricolor" — hinting at a Ukrainian attempt to blow up a Russian passenger jet.
Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia's most-read tabloid, took another tack. It claimed that Ukrainian air traffic controllers redirected the Malaysia Airlines plane to fly directly over the conflict zone, publishing pictures from flight-tracking websites that appeared to show fluctuations in the plane's route.
On Tuesday, the paper appeared to suggest that the jetliner was shot down by a Ukrainian military plane with American help: "A Ukrainian attack plane and an American spy satellite were following the fallen Boeing," a report claimed.
Russia media have suggested that Ukrainian authorities orchestrated the downing to make it look like a rebel attack, in hopes it would be the catalyst for luring Western powers into military intervention.
Nationalist politicians are also heating up the tone in Russian media — and fueling conspiracy theories.
"The fact that the plane fell is an American provocation," firebrand member of Parliament Vladimir Zhirinovsky told Vesti FM radio station. "They always do everything possible to blame Russia. It's possible that there were corpses that were placed ahead of time in the seats of the plane."
Russian state-controlled television, which is where a majority of Russians get their news, tends to toe the official line and abrupt changes in language on the air can reflect changes in Kremlin strategy. In June, Putin began soft-pedaling his rhetoric on Ukraine after recognizing May 25 presidential elections, in an apparent attempt to stave off Western sanctions.
After the airline tragedy, Putin led the shift to a more aggressive tone.
"This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine," Putin said. "And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy."
Outrage has grown in the West over what appears to be a bungled start to the investigation. Rebels allowed a group of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe only a superficial inspection of the crash site on Saturday before firing warning shots when two Ukrainian members of the group attempted to study wreckage.
In Russia, meanwhile, news reports repeat that the rebels have been cooperating with the observers — and blame Kiev for stalling the arrival of international investigators.
"Yesterday the OSCE group worked in the field all day at the scene of the plane crash," First Channel's Sunday broadcast began. "So far the Ukrainian authorities do not want to send a group of international specialists to Donetsk."