As US, UK point at 'bomb' in Sinai plane crash, Russia takes cooler approach

British statements and US intelligence leaks are pointing toward the possibility of a bomb downing a Russian plane over Egypt. That wouldn't bode well for Kremlin participation in Syria.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Maria, center, the mother of Alexei Alekseyev, one of the plane crash victims, reacts, during his funeral at Bogoslovskoye cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015. The first victims of Saturday’s plane crash over Egypt were laid to rest on Thursday following funeral services in St. Petersburg and Veliky Novgorod, Russia. Russia's Airbus 321-200 broke up over the Sinai Peninsula en route from the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, killing all 224 on board.

Russia is asking foreign governments to stop "speculating" on the causes of the Sinai airbus crash that killed 224 Russians over the weekend, after British Prime Minister David Cameron said publicly that it was "more likely than not" a bomb planted by Islamic State terrorists.

The issue is politically sensitive for the Kremlin, which is just over a month into an escalating air war in Syria, officially designed to destroy IS and other terrorist groups. Any firm conclusion that extremists had managed to strike back by bringing down an airliner full of Russian tourists would quickly deflate the war's antiseptic media image and bring it home in the harshest possible way for a Russian public that remains deeply averse to foreign military adventures. 

There seems little doubt that outside prodding and advice is deeply unwelcome in Moscow. And few appear ready to believe that the meddling is well-meant.

The Kremlin appeared to react calmly Thursday to the British statements, and similar suggestions emanating from US intelligence sources. President Vladamir Putin spoke with Mr. Cameron by telephone today, asking him to wait for the results of the investigation to become clear.

Although Russian media has, perhaps surprisingly, given considerable coverage to the possibility that the Russian airliner was brought down by a terrorist bomb, some analysts say they are deeply dubious.

For one thing, accidents have occurred with frequency among Russian airlines, especially marginal operators such as the carrier in this case, Kogalymavia. Though its officials insist that only an "external force" could have brought down the plane, the airline's own history suggests otherwise. It rebranded itself as MetroJet after a bad runway accident in 2011 that killed three people. And though there has been a shaking out in Russia's airline industry in recent years, it is still ranked as one of the most unsafe places to fly.

"As one who has survived two near catastrophes in Russian airplanes, I find myself perfectly ready to believe that technical flaws caused the Sinai disaster," says Alexei Malashenko, an Islamic scholar with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

More seriously, he says, the claim of responsibility attributed to IS does not sound authentic. "It's most unlikely that IS, as an institution, would do this. They don't need it," Mr. Malashenko says. "They aren't Al Qaeda, and they are trying very hard to position themselves as a state nowadays."

Malashenko allows that some smaller group, perhaps linked to Al Qaeda, might have done it. If that should prove to be the case, he adds, the political impact in Russia will be much the same as if IS were responsible.

A few Russian analysts say they frankly smell "disinformation" in the flurry of leaks from unnamed US intelligence sources and statements by British leaders.

"They're not even involved in the investigation, and they aren't exactly trying to be helpful with these so-called disclosures," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.

"It looks to me like they want to send a signal to Russian society, to exploit this tragedy by planting the suggestion that [President] Putin made a big mistake by going into Syria. They want to stir up opposition," he says.

Russia endured over a decade of terrorism, which killed hundreds in Moscow and other heartland cities, during its second war to subdue rebel Chechnya after Putin came to power.

"The record shows that Russians only toughen their attitude when they are attacked, just as Americans do," says Mr. Mukhin. "The threat of more terrorism is only likely to make people rally around Putin."

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