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Putin's fiasco in Ukraine

Russia's President Vladimir Putin is responsible for Thursday's missile attack that destroyed a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane over rebel-held territory in Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Even if Putin did not order the attack, he bears responsibility for orchestrating pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine and providing them with sophisticated surface-to-air missiles.

Reuters

Putin has recently made statements appearing to distance Russia from Ukrainian rebels. But his credibility is in doubt, given continued cooperation between Russia and pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

Read MoreCondemnation of Russia is bad—and likely to get worse

After the ceasefire recently collapsed, Russia expanded its military assistance, rushing military equipment across the border. Russian fighter jets joined the battle, shooting down a Ukrainian plane this week. Since June 13, ten Ukrainian aircraft were destroyed using Russian manufactured Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS).

However, more sophisticated technology is needed to bring down a Boeing 777 jumbo jet flying at 33,000 feet. A Russian surface-to-air missile, called "Buk," was used. Buk missiles are launched from trucks, which were recently seen crossing the Russia-Ukraine border.

Communications were intercepted between pro-Russian rebels discussing the attack. It is unclear whether communications were solely between rebels, or between rebels and Russian commanders.

Read MoreWorld demands answers in Ukraine jet crash

The conflict in Ukraine is part of a larger contest between Russia and NATO. Putin is leading Russia's efforts to subvert the democratically-elected government of Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko. Putin was enraged when Pereshenko signed the EU Customs Union Agreement on June 27. He is determined to undermine Ukraine's integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Downing the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane was likely an accident. Rebel commanders probably thought it was an Antonov cargo and personnel transport plane.

Or, to conspiracy theorists, the missile strike could have been retaliation for a robust new round of sanctions by the West. Obama warned Putin that annexing Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine would have "have consequences." On Wednesday, he announced harsh new penalties on Russian energy companies, financial institutions, arms firms, and cronies of Vladimir Putin.

Read MoreRussian sanctions may get 'much worse' after crash

The missile attack on the Malaysian Airlines plane was both a crime, and a tactical mistake. Mostly Europeans were on board. The West will be more united in its effort to punish Russia for criminal conduct.

Russia should apologize to the government of Malaysia and pay a penalty. Like Libya, which paid damages to the families of Lockerbie victims, Russia should also compensate the families of those who perished on the Malaysian Airlines plane.

Putin's policies in Ukraine have been discredited. Re-asserting Russia's authority in the near abroad has failed. Trans-Atlantic cooperation will be strengthened. More than pin-prick sanctions will be needed if the Kremlin is implicated in downing Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

Read MoreMalaysian plane crash: images from the ground

Commentary by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the U.S. Department of State during the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. He is also author of the forthcoming book, "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East" (Transaction Publishers).

Read MoreLive blog: US says Russian separatists hit MH17

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