Washington: When Vladimir Putin told Barack Obama by phone of the downed Malaysian aircraft, the real lesson for these two powerful men was that they are not in full control. During a crisis such as the national fracturing in Ukraine, headstrong rebels running amok on the ground can stop the world on its axis, by taking a potshot at a passing aircraft.
The weight of the initial evidence points to rebel recklessness. But just as they are said to have believed that the Malaysian jet was a Ukrainian air force aircraft, there is an outside possibility that pro-Kiev forces took the shot, in the belief that the jet was a Russian aircraft.
Most disturbing on a recent assignment in the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine was the ambiguity and disarray among fighters on both sides.
Arriving at a Ukrainian military checkpoint, a bare-chested soldier, high on something, brandished a pistol at Fairfax photographer Kate Geraghty and at me. At rebel checkpoints there was the same sense that our reception was dictated by the number of drinks any one of the fighters might have consumed at lunch.
Disagreement on Kiev's bid to join the European Union split the country last year. Huge protests rocked the Ukrainian capital – pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee the country in February, after his security forces gunned down more than 100 demonstrators.
Kiev and the west of the country wanted to sign on with the EU, but much of the east hankered for ties to Moscow. When Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in February, Ukraine was plunged into chaos.
Separatist movements sprang up in the Russian-speaking east – first in Crimea, where Moscow's Black Sea fleet is moored at Sevastopol, and within weeks in regions along the Russian border, particularly in Donetsk and Luhansk, where a rebel-organised referendum voted to breakaway and join Russia. After the referendum, Alexander Borodai was appointed "prime minister" of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.
Despite Moscow's claims that the rebel movements are homegrown, key positions in the leadership in Donetsk, in particular, are held by Russians. One of them is Igor Girkin, who goes by the nom de guerre of Strelkov, or "The Gunman", who is said to have authored the social media claim that his men shot down another Ukrainian aircraft about the time the Malaysian aircraft was hit.
The 41-year-old Girkin undermined Moscow's efforts to distance itself from the fight when he estimated, in a Russian TV interview, that as many as two-thirds of the rebels were not local. He said: "The unit that I came to Slaviansk [north of Donetsk] with was put together in Crimea. I'm not going to hide that – it was put together by volunteers."
Thefrontlines are difficult to discern. In some towns, the rebels simply took control of key public buildings. But they held the town of Slaviansk for months before being dislodged last week by Ukrainian government forces.
Neither side is fully competent to use the stashes of weapons they have at their disposal.
The US and the EU accuse Moscow of providing logistical and military supplies, for which reason Obama imposed a new raft of sanctions on Moscow on Wednesday.
The rebels have cheerfully acknowledged shooting down at least three Ukrainian aircraft, but as they tried to back away from what appeared to be Girkin's admission that they had brought down the Malaysian jet, the so-called deputy prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, Andrei Purgin, told reporters: "We don't have the technical ability to hit a plane at that height."
However, a Ukrainian government adviser, Anton Geraschenko, said on his Facebook page that the jet had been hit by a Russian-made Buk, or Beech anti-aircraft missile – and there had been reported sightings of a mobile Buk launcher between the towns of Torez and Snezhnoye, in the area where the jet came down.
The story Fractured Ukraine shows neither Barack Obama nor Vladimir Putin are in control first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.