TIME Security

Hackers Hit Malaysia Airlines Website

The airline says no customer data at risk

Malaysia Airlines said Monday that its website had been “compromised,” though it denied reports that hackers had actually infiltrated the site itself and said no customer information was at risk.

Beginning late Sunday night, users going on the airline’s website were directed to a page touting messages from a group claiming to be aligned with Islamist extremism. The browser window, reading “ISIS WILL PREVAIL,” stood over a page displaying the image of an aircraft along with the message “404- Plane Not Found.” Malaysia Airlines is still suffering from the fallout of two downed planes in the last year, one of which was shot down over Ukraine and the other that has yet to be recovered.

Others were shown similar messaging over the image of a reptile donning a monocle and top hat.

A hacker group called Lizard Squad, also going by Cyber Caliphate, has taken credit and boasted about the alleged hack on Twitter.

Malaysia Airlines released a public statement on its Facebook page assuring customers that although its site “has been compromised where users are re-directed to a hacker website… Malaysia Airlines assures customers and clients that its website was not hacked and this temporary glitch does not affect their bookings and that user data remains secured.”

Although Malaysiaairlines.com was down Monday morning, the company had created a separate site where customers could check into their flights.

Lizard Squad still claimed that data has been compromised.

 

TIME Aviation

Qatar Airways Plans to Live Stream Flight Data from Black Box Recorders

Comercial Bank Qatar Masters - Day Two
A Qatar Airways plane flys over head during the second round of the Comercial Bank Qatar Masters at the Doha Golf Club on January 23, 2014 in Doha, Qatar. Ross Kinnaird—Getty Images

"Qatar Airways will, I hope, be the first airliner to introduce this in all our planes”

Qatar Airways wants to be the first airline to stream flight data from black boxes to operations centers on the ground in real-time, so that rescue crews won’t miss a beat in the event of a disturbance during flight.

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker said a new flight tracking system was currently being tested in preparation for a fleet-wide deployment, Bloomberg reports.

The push for the new system comes in the wake of disappearances last year of Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia flights, which prompted frenzied searches for black box data, which can record vital clues about the plane’s location and flight conditions before it went down. Indonesian divers retrieved black boxes from missing Air Asia Flight QZ8501 Sunday, after the plane with 162 passengers crashed into the Java Sea.

“Once this has been proven and all the bugs have been cleared then Qatar Airways will, I hope, be the first airliner to introduce this in all our planes,” Baker said.

Read more at Bloomberg.

TIME Transportation

Why Tech Can’t Help Us Find Missing Airplanes

radar-screen
luoman—Getty Images

In 2015, we may be doomed to repeat the problems of 2014, unless we rethink the way we monitor air traffic over the world’s oceans

This article was originally published at the Daily Dot.

In an era where it’s possible to track a stolen Macbook Pro at the click of a button, it seems ludicrous to imagine an entire airplane disappearing. Yet, that’s exactly what happened this year, twice, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 mysteriously vanished in March, followed by a similar disappearing act on the part of AirAsia QZ8501 on Sunday. And, thanks to the outdated technology we use to track aircraft, it’s an event that could happen again. The next time you’re on a flight over the ocean, look down. There’s a high probability that nobody knows where you are.

If that concerns you, it should, but it doesn’t seem to bother any of the regulatory agencies responsible for the safety of the over three billion passengers who board airliners every year. Nor does it upset airlines. Despite the fact that some of the technology used for tracking and monitoring planes dates to the 1930s, regulators and airlines have been slow to adopt alternative technologies, even though they’re available. In 2015, we may be doomed to repeat the problems of 2014, unless we rethink the way we monitor air traffic over the world’s oceans.

You might think that airline tracking relies on a highly sophisticated series of satellites and GPS, but you’re actually wrong. Planes are tracked via radar, an old but still highly effective method of keeping track of large objects in the sky, but it has some flaws, even with the use of a combination of both primary and secondary radar systems. Air traffic control towers and military installations start by using primary radar, which detects objects in range by reading reflected radio signals, to track the movement of aircraft: Think of the classic cockpit green screen with approaching fighter jets in an action movie…

Read the rest of the story at the Daily Dot

TIME Aviation

This Is Why GPS Can’t Find the Missing AirAsia Flight QZ 8501

Navy soldiers work on a map of Indonesia monitoring all Navy ships from Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia involved in the joint search and rescue operation for AirAsia flight QZ8501 at a navy base on Batam island
Indonesian navy soldiers work on a map of Indonesia monitoring all ships from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia involved in the joint search-and-rescue operation for AirAsia Flight QZ8501 at a navy base on the Indonesian island of Batam on Dec. 29, 2014 Antara Photo Agency/Reuters

Finding a plane isn't as simple as finding your phone

Objects that appeared to be a body and luggage, seen floating in the Karimata Strait on Tuesday, are the latest clues as to the final resting place of AirAsia Flight QZ 8501, which disappeared 42 minutes after leaving Indonesia for Singapore early Sunday.

Indonesia’s Kompas TV said the objects were spotted by an Indonesian air-force pilot.

The sighting joins other unconfirmed leads as to the fate of the Airbus A320-200 and its 162 passengers and crew. According to news agency Agence France-Presse, “items resembling an emergency slide and plane door” were also seen Tuesday floating in the Java Sea by the crew of an Indonesian search aircraft, some 105 miles (169km) from Pangkalan Bun, a town in Central Kalimantan province, in southern Borneo.

Other clues include a few wisps of smoke spotted spiraling from Belitung Island, off the east coast of Sumatra, and an account by two fishermen of Kubu village, in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province, who may have witnessed an explosion at sea and are reportedly taking officials to the spot.

There has already been one false lead — the “suspicious objects” seen Monday that were quickly discounted as general flotsam. The others may turn out the same way. But in this age of airborne wi-fi and GPS in every smart phone, a pertinent question must be asked: Why are we relying on smoke signals, fishermen and crewmen peering through the dull plexiglass of aircraft windows, at choppy seas hundreds of feet below, to find a plane?

The answer is investment priorities.

Modern aircraft, QZ 8501 included, have a GPS system, known as ADS-B, that broadcasts the plane’s location. However, this only works for normal flights — once an aircraft is hurtling to the ground, conditions become too extreme for it to function (neither would your phone’s GPS).

“People have been comparing this situation to Apple’s Find My Phone app,” John Walton, a British aviation journalist, tells TIME. “But the app can’t tell you very much on the way down if your phone is thrown off a 10-story building.”

Walton was also quick to tweet his reservations over whether an initial set of objects sighted Tuesday came from QZ 8501.

The disappearance of Malaysia Airways Flight 370 in March, presumed lost in the southern Indian Ocean with 239 people on board, prompted similar frustrations about why better technology isn’t being used to track missing planes.

Despite that, both the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) have been “dragging their feet and putting some very feeble proposals forward” regarding developing the necessary technology, says Walton.

In December, a recommended timetable for deploying stopgap technology was vetoed by IATA board members, reports Reuters.

However, industry insiders say there is a valid argument against prioritizing expensive new GPS technology. It is unknown whether it would actually save any lives, and given difficult investment choices in a fiercely competitive marketplace, airlines would be better off putting money into advances that actually make planes safer.

Despite high-profile air disasters — which include Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down over Ukraine in July, and the crash of an Air Algeria plane in Mali the same month with the loss of 116 lives — 2014 is on course to be the safest year on record in terms of fatal aviation accidents. There have been just eight as opposed to 11 in 2012, the previous safest year.

According to a Flightglobal study, “airline operations are now almost three times safer than they were 20 years ago.”

This is largely due to improvements to technology and training, spurred by massive investment. And so while it may seem ridiculous that passenger jets can disappear without a trace, it is also remarkable just how reliable they have become. They are still very much the world’s safest mode of transport.

There’s just one snag. When something does go wrong, it goes wrong catastrophically — and our inability to do a simple thing like find an aircraft only gives us more time to dwell on that fact.

With reporting by Yenni Kwok

Read next: AirAsia Relatives in Shock as Indonesian TV Airs Images of Floating Body

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME

What Air France Flight 447 Can Teach Us About AirAsia Flight 8501

A crew of an Indonesian Air Force C-130 airplane of the 31st Air Squadron looks out of the window during a search operation for the missing AirAsia flight 8501 jetliner over the waters of Karimata Strait in Indonesia on Dec. 29, 2014.
A crew member of the Indonesian air force's C-130 airplane looks out of the window during a search operation for the missing AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 jetliner over the waters of Karimata Strait in Indonesia on Dec. 29, 2014 Dita Alangkara—AP

Robert Goyer is the editor-in-chief of Flying magazine.

Similarities to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370 are remarkable, but important differences mean that accident is unlikely to offer the right clues

As air-disaster detectives have learned from the early phases of some high-profile accident investigations, evidence can be priceless or useless.

Clues are scarce in the early days of the hunt for AirAsia Flight QZ 8501, the Airbus A320 that disappeared from radarscopes over the weekend, presumably crashing into the ocean, claiming the lives of all 162 on board.

Despite a couple of remarkable similarities, AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 is no Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370, the Boeing 777 that was lost and has remained lost after going off radar screens shortly after what should have been a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing last March.

Here are the important differences:

  • The Malaysia Airlines flight was routed through a wide area of clear weather, whereas the AirAsia Airbus was transiting a sector that was overrun by severe thunderstorms with the tops of those storms reaching as high as 50,000 ft., nearly 20,000 ft. higher than the jet was flying when its pilots made their last known communication.
  • The actions of the pilots of AirAsia were completely routine up until that time, whereas the actions of the pilots of MH 370, like turning off communications gear, are inexplicably strange.
  • Investigators know the approximate location of the AirAsia wreckage is through direct radar data. The location of the debris from MH 370 had to be extrapolated using complex mathematical calculations based on satellite data. This doesn’t mean searchers will find the wreckage of AirAsia QZ 8501, but they at least know they’re in the right ballpark.

So while it was tempting to compare the newly missing jet with another lost without a trace in the same part of the world, a much more useful comparison is to the loss of a different airplane in a different part of the world. In 2009, Air France Flight 447 was flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it went missing. The jet, an Airbus A330 with a similar flight-control system to that of the AirAsia Airbus A320, had penetrated an area of strong precipitation.

Only after recovering Flight 447’s black boxes from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean nearly two years after the crash did investigators learn the cause. After it entered an area of stormy weather, the sensors on the airplane that detect its speed and altitude iced over, rendering effectively useless the flight instruments the pilots use to control the airplane. As a result, the flight crew, flying blind in the dead of night, were baffled by the bad information they were getting from their instruments. They consequently crashed a perfectly flyable airplane into the ocean, killing all 228 people aboard.

There are three clues investigators already have to the AirAsia flight that make a compelling early case for the comparison to Flight 447. The first is the clear knowledge of the strength, position and intensity of the storms that the pilots of the AirAsia Airbus were attempting to make their way through. We know that the road ahead was filled with strong radar returns, indicating severe weather ahead.

Clue No. 2 is what we can presume was the last transmission the AirAsia pilots made, asking for a new altitude dramatically higher than the one they had been cruising at and a new direction of flight. Both requests would strongly suggest that the pilots knew that they were fast approaching very bad weather. In fact, it is likely they were already experiencing strong turbulence as a result of flying into the edge of a strong storm cell.

The final clue is a radar readout, reported by several news outlets, of the airplane’s ground speed of a very slow 125 m.p.h. Airplanes fly not because of how fast they’re going over the ground but by how fast they’re flying through the air. So it’s possible that the speed readout on the radar indicates a speed at which the airplane, if it had a strong headwind, could continue to remain flying, but if so, only barely.

The slow speed indicated by the radar is more likely evidence that the big jet had lost aerodynamic lift and was descending out of control.

All these clues add up to the strong possibility that AirAsia QZ 8501 was lost because of a malfunction similar or identical to that of Air France Flight 447.

We can only hope that searchers get a lucky break and can home in on the signal from the missing plane’s flight-data recorder, as only with its wealth of clues will we know for certain what really happened to Flight QZ 8501.

Goyer is the editor in chief of Flying magazine.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Ukraine

Video of MH17 Crash Emerges as Officials Begin Clearing Debris

The footage shows villagers' immediate reaction to the crash

New video footage taken moments after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in eastern Ukraine has emerged as investigators begin clearing the crash site debris.

The clip, obtained by the Associated Press four months after the flight was downed in July, shows how close the crash came to hitting a village. Ukraine says Russian-supported rebels in the eastern part of the country shot down the plane, while state-run Russian media says it has evidence that indicate Ukraine’s air force was responsible. All 298 people aboard the flight were killed.

Dutch officials and authorities from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are transporting debris from the site to the city of Kharkiv, which, along with the Netherlands, is one site where the investigation is still being conducted.

[AP]

TIME Malaysia

Malaysia Airlines Asked for Travelers’ ‘Bucket Lists’ in Ill-Advised Contest

A member of ground crew works on a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 737-800 airplane on the runway at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang
A member of ground crew works on a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 737-800 airplane on the runway at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on July 25, 2014 Olivia Harris—Reuters

Would-be passengers in Australia and New Zealand were invited to share their bucket lists in hopes of winning a free ticket

Malaysia Airlines (MAS) launched a competition in Australia and New Zealand four days ago, according to media reports, in which it said it was giving away free economy-class tickets and free iPads.

The marketing ploy was to be expected from an airline still reeling from the twin tragedies of MH17 and MH370, but the competition name was bizarre: My Ultimate Bucket List.

Contestants had to explain “What and where would you like to tick off on your bucket list?”

The Merriam-Webster definition of bucket list is “a list of things that one has not done before but wants to do before dying.” The association is horrific, given that 537 people lost their lives flying on the airline this year.

The contest appears to have since been withdrawn, with the original competition link now leading to a 404 error page. A PDF of the competition terms and conditions could be found here at time of publication, but besides that there no longer appear to be details of the competition on the MAS site.

The launch of the competition was picked up in the Australian travel-industry press and even name-checked in British tabloid the Daily Mail. But perhaps MAS has since realized that asking prospective passengers to think up a bucket list before accepting a free ticket on one of its planes might be construed as macabre.

The airline can at least be grateful that online gaffes can be deleted. In 2003, the Hong Kong Tourism Board ran an ad promising would-be visitors that “Hong Kong will take your breath away.” At the time, SARS — severe acute respiratory syndrome — had killed about 100 people, mostly in Hong Kong and China. But the ad ran in British and European print magazines — and there was no time to change the slogan before the presses started to roll.

TIME Ukraine

Kerry Says Not ‘a Shred’ of Evidence Russia Wants to Ease Ukraine Fighting

Kerry warned Russia would face stiffer sanctions if it continued to arm and support Ukraine's separatists

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry threatened to impose wider sanctions on Russia in a Tuesday press conference, arguing that Russian officials had “not shown a shred of evidence” that they want to de-escalate the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Kerry accused Russia of continuing to ship arms, funds and personnel into eastern Ukraine even after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. If Russia failed to reign in its separatist allies, “we and our European partners will take additional measures and impose wider sanctions on key sections of the Russian economy,” Kerry said during a Washington, D.C. appearance alongside Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.

The announcement echoed a warning from the White House on Monday that the United States and European Union were prepared to tighten sanctions over key sectors of the Russian economy.

Kerry also blasted separatists militias for blocking international investigators’ access to the MH17 crash site and failing to return victims’ remains and belongings to their families. Kerry urged Russia to intervene, calling the behavior “an appalling disregard for human decency.”

TIME russia

In Russia, Crime Without Punishment

Vladimir Putin backs the rebels suspected of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Why each new crisis makes him stronger

The scene was almost too horrible to take in, and yet in a world of bristling threats no scene has been more revealing: under the baking July sun of eastern Ukraine, hundreds of bodies lay rotting as pro-Russian militiamen, some of them apparently drunk, brandished their weapons to keep European observers away. A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 bearing 298 souls–AIDS researchers, young lovers, eager children–had been blown out of the sky, apparently by a Russian-made missile, and the dead fell in a gruesome storm. One voice, and one voice only, could put an end to this indecent standoff over the innocent victims. But Vladimir Putin merely shrugged and pointed a finger at the Ukrainian government and, by extension, its Western allies. “Without a doubt,” Putin told a meeting of his economic aides on the night of the disaster, “the state over whose territory this happened bears the responsibility for this frightful tragedy.”

Had Putin finally gone too far? As the days passed and the stench rose, the coldly calculating Russian President got his answer: apparently not. While state-controlled media at home buried Russia’s role in the disaster under an avalanche of anti-Western propaganda, leaders in Europe and the U.S. found themselves stymied once again by Putin’s brazenness. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose nation lost 193 citizens in the attack (one of them a U.S.-passport holder) called pitifully on Putin to do “what is expected of him” in helping recover the bodies. U.S. President Barack Obama struck a similar tone on July 21 after the victims’ remains had been packed into refrigerated train cars out of reach of foreign investigators: “Given its direct influence over the separatists, Russia and President Putin in particular has direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation. That is the least that they can do.”

That was the crisis in a nutshell: the least Putin could do was the most Obama could ask for. The American President announced no deadlines, drew no red lines and made no threats. Even as U.S. intelligence sources asserted with growing confidence that Russian weapons and Russian allies were behind the missile attack, U.S. diplomats were met with roadblocks as they tried to rally Europe to stiffen sanctions against Putin. Obama and Rutte spoke as leaders without leverage, for their voters aren’t interested in military conflict with Russia or its puppets. A generation of Westerners has grown up in the happy belief that the Cold War ended long ago and peace is Europe’s fated future. They are slow to rally to the chore of once again containing Russia’s ambitions.

So Putin presses ahead. His increasingly overt goal is to splinter Europe, rip up the NATO umbrella and restore Russian influence around the world. As if to put an exclamation point on that manifesto, the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine apparently resumed their antiaircraft attacks less than a week after the destruction of Flight 17. On July 23, two military aircraft belonging to the pro-Western Ukrainian government were shot down just a few miles away from the airliner’s crash site.

And Putin evidently will keep going as long as each new crisis only makes him stronger. The 21st century czar has mastered the dark art of stirring up problems that only he can solve, so that Western leaders find themselves scolding him one minute while pleading with him the next. The crisis in Syria last year is a perfect example. He supplied weapons and training for the armies of President Bashar Assad, propping up the tyrant while Western statesmen demanded Assad’s ouster. Yet when Assad crossed the “red line” drawn by Obama and used chemical weapons against his own people, Putin stepped in to broker the solution. At the urging of the Russian President, Assad gave up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In turn, the U.S. backed away from air strikes in Syria. And guess who still reigns in Damascus? Putin’s ally Assad.

Other world leaders try to avoid crises; Putin feasts on them. When a pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine, Putin dashed in to annex the region of Crimea–an act that redrew the borders of Europe and snatched away Ukraine’s territorial jewel. Within a month, Western diplomats began stuffing the issue into the past. Why? Because by then, Russia had stolen a march on eastern Ukraine, giving the West another crisis to deal with–and another problem that only Putin could reconcile. He made a show of pulling Russian troops back a short distance from the border with Ukraine, but Russian arms and trainers kept the separatists supplied for the fight. And when the fighting produced the macabre spectacle of the rotting corpses, once again the instigator was in the driver’s seat.

“Mr. Putin, send my children home,” pleaded a heartbroken Dutch mother named Silene Fredriksz-Hogzand, whose son Bryce, along with his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers, were among the victims of Flight 17. And he did send them home–but only after the crash site had been so thoroughly looted and trampled that investigators may never be able to prove exactly what happened.

Divided We Stand

Can the West stop a figure who is determined to uphold the dreary habits of czars and Soviet leaders while projecting Russian exceptionalism and power? Putin doesn’t have a lot to worry about when he looks at the forces aligned against him. Obama, as the leader of a war-weary nation, has ruled out all military options, including the provision of weapons to Ukraine. Europe is both too divided and too dependent on Russian energy supplies to provoke any lasting rupture in relations. The only option would seem to be the steady ratcheting up of sanctions.

That’s harder than it sounds. Putin has allies in the heart of Europe–notably Italy, which now holds the rotating presidency of the E.U.–and it has lobbied against the sort of sanctions that could do serious damage to Russia’s economy. Cutting off trade, the Italians say (and they speak for others), would only reverse the current, inflicting substantial pain on European corporations that benefit from it. “The Europeans are in a panic over the U.S. line on sanctions,” says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political consultant who traveled to Europe in mid-July to rally support among pundits and politicians there. “As soon as the E.U. gets the slightest chance to turn away from Washington on the issue of Ukraine, they will take it.”

Even if Europe does begin to match Washington’s tough stance on sanctions, there is scant evidence to suggest that they will work. They did not, for example, dissuade Russia from allegedly giving the separatists sophisticated SA-11 missiles, one of which U.S. intelligence officials say was probably used to shoot down MH 17. Imposing sanctions may simply make Putin lash out more. “It’s like poking a bear in the paw with a needle,” says Andrei Illarionov, who served as Putin’s top economic adviser in the early 2000s. “Will it prevent him from ransacking your cooler? Probably not.”

In fact, the first three rounds of U.S. sanctions–targeting Russian officials, oligarchs and state-run companies–have done little to stop the bleeding of Ukraine. If anything, as the world turned its attention away from the conflict in the former Soviet republic in the past several weeks, the fighting there has worsened. The top NATO commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, says Russian weapons and paramilitary fighters have continued flowing through the holes at the border. Russian troops massed in western Russia have kept up the threat of a full-scale invasion. “Everything that Putin has done has shown that he is absolutely all in on this issue,” says Ian Bremmer, head of the New York City–based Eurasia Group consultancy. “The Russians do not back down.”

Crackdowns and Conspiracy Theories

Instead of chastening the Russian President, the prospect of isolation has only seemed to harden his resolve. Nor is there any sign that Moscow’s ruling class–a section of Russian society that constitutes a key pillar of support for the President–has flinched in the face of Western threats and sanctions. Putin’s public-approval rating is the envy of every Western leader, standing at 86% as of late June, 20 points higher than when the Ukraine crisis began last winter, according to the independent Levada-Center polling agency.

But even if more-meaningful sanctions were somehow enacted, there is no guarantee they would help shove Putin off his pedestal. The Russian President thrives in crisis because he so effectively controls the narrative in the motherland. Russia’s pro-Kremlin TV networks–both state-controlled and private–are the main source of information for 90% of Russians. This TV propaganda machine helps keep Putin secure in an era when other strongmen have been toppled in revolutions driven in part by social media. Apart from a state-backed crackdown this year on independent news websites, the Kremlin’s supporters have proved adept at drowning out online dissent and flooding the Russian-language web with Putinthink.

His media networks have cast the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a righteous struggle, pitting a resurgent Russia against the conniving West. The pro-Putin talking heads on these channels hit reliably similar themes, championing Russian dignity, Orthodox Christian values, the survival of the Russian-speaking world and the fall of the American menace. Now MH 17 is being crammed into this narrative. After a brief wait for Putin to set the tone, a tide of conspiracy theories flooded the Russian media, all of them blaming Ukraine or its ally, the U.S., for shooting down the plane. With feelings toward the U.S. at an all-time low in Levada’s surveys, this wasn’t a difficult sell for a populace weaned on the dogmas of the Cold War. “It goes without saying that everything bad that happens to us is initiated by the United States,” says Mikhail Zygar, editor in chief of Russia’s only independent news channel. “That’s something many Russian politicians or just ordinary Russians get with their mother’s milk.”

Putin’s designs, meanwhile, are far grander than Ukraine. He hopes the conflict on Russia’s western flank will create divisions within Europe that shrink American influence. His vision–which he referred to on April 17, at the peak of Russia’s euphoria over the conquest of Crimea–is the creation of a “greater Europe” that would stretch from Portugal to Russia’s Pacific Coast, with Moscow as one of its centers of influence. By creating problems like Ukraine that only he can solve, he puts himself in the center of European politics. Russia’s vast oil and gas resources–on which Europe relies–only add to his influence.

The U.S., in this scenario, becomes a rival rather than an ally of Europe. “The United States is a major global player, and at a certain point it seemed to think that it was the only leader and a unipolar system was established. Now we can see that is not the case,” Putin said at the end of his appearance on a call-in show that day in April. “If they try to punish someone like misbehaving children or to stand them in the corner on a sack of peas or do something to hurt them, eventually they will bite the hand that feeds them. Sooner or later, they will realize this.”

A Case of Russian Pride

What happens in the aftermath of the MH 17 disaster will test Putin’s assessment of declining American power. The coming days will determine whether the U.S. and Europe can form a united front against a country that virtually the entire world believes handed a loaded weapon to an unregulated militia. “We can’t do this unilaterally,” says a senior official in the Obama Administration. “We’ve got to work with the Europeans on a strategy to help contain Russia.”

So far there’s not much unity on show. Four days after the downing of the airliner, when the bodies of the victims were still stuck in rebel territory, French President François Hollande said France would go ahead with the sale of at least one warship to Russia, the helicopter carrier Mistral, against the direct objections of the U.S. and U.K. “The symbolism is terrible,” the Administration official tells Time on condition of anonymity.

The symbolism was not much better when E.U. Foreign Ministers met on July 22 to discuss ways to isolate Russia further. Even with emotions still raw over the downing of MH 17, the ministers did not bring European sanctions into line with those of the U.S., choosing instead to add a few names to their blacklist of rebel leaders and Russian technocrats. They pledged to draft a list of harsher punishments later in the week, possibly including an arms embargo. Even the Dutch, who lost so many, do not yet seem keen to take the lead. “In the near term, much will depend on the Dutch and where European opinion settles,” says the Administration official. “The Europeans had already been moving forward–slowly, but forward.”

Certainly, the Dutch-led investigation into the shoot-down isn’t likely to trouble Putin soon. British experts are analyzing the plane’s flight recorders. Forensic experts are examining the wreckage that was scattered across an area of several square miles. The investigation could take years, and it will be complicated by the fact that the people likely responsible for the disaster–the rebel fighters–had several days to remove evidence of their culpability.

There is always the chance of a quick and unexpected breakthrough–a missile fragment with a chemical signature or a serial number identifying its source. One of the trigger pullers could break his silence and confess to the crime. That could lead to an arrest, extradition, a trial and conviction years down the road. But these are chances Putin seems willing to take. “Maybe he can still apologize,” says Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Adviser under President Jimmy Carter. “But he would have to swallow a lot of mendacity.”

Besides, for now, Vladimir Putin answers to virtually no one. His command of the Russian airwaves will help him manage any blowback at home, spinning even the most damning evidence as part of an ancient American conspiracy. The more the world picks on him and Russia, the more it feeds a Russian will to push back, out of a sense of pride and victimhood. Isolation will still be the West’s only means of attack, and if Europe has lacked the will to impose it after Syria, after Crimea and even amid the global outrage over MH 17, it is unlikely to take action once the shock of the crash subsides. Putin has played this game before. He need only bide his time for the West’s own inaction to clear him.

–WITH REPORTING BY MICHAEL CROWLEY, ZEKE MILLER, JAY NEWTON-SMALL AND MARK THOMPSON/WASHINGTON; MIRREN GIDDA/LONDON; AND CHARLY WILDER/MOSCOW

TIME brussels

EU Preparing Further Sanctions Against Russia After MH17 Crash

The Bodies Of The MH17 Plane Crash Are Repatriated From The Ukraine To The Netherlands
A numbered coffin carried by Dutch military personnel contains an unidentified body from the crash of MH17 on July 23, 2014 at Eindhoven airport, Netherlands. Peter Macdiarmid—Getty Images

But it's unclear how potent any sanctions will be

For a continent determined to present a united message of outrage and reprisals after the downing of Flight MH17 killed 211 of its citizens, the signals coming from the European Union this week have been contradictory.

While its foreign ministers emerged from a meeting Tuesday vowing strong and unified action, a cross-channel spat over the sale of French warships to Russia exposed the depths of the economic conflicts which have prevented the EU from hitting Moscow with the toughest tools in its arsenal.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “unthinkable” that the UK would continue with the $1.62 billion warship deal, as France has done, given the Kremlin’s alleged backing of the Ukrainian rebels believed to have shot down the plane. The leader of France’s ruling Socialist Party, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, hit back: “When you see how many oligarchs have sought refuge in London, David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own backyard.”

For Stefan Lehne, a former Austrian diplomat who is now a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Europe policy center, the spat underscored a “lack of coherence” among the 28 member states, and one which is unlikely to be solved in the coming days or weeks, despite last Thursday’s tragedy.

“The shooting down of this airliner has of course increased urgency and support for doing something, but it has not changed anything fundamental,” he says. “There are still all the different interests of the member states.”

So for now, the EU has continued with its policy of inching forward with low-level sanctions while issuing more ultimatums, a cycle it has pursued since a political crisis in eastern Ukraine escalated into a full-scale insurgency earlier this year: First, add more names to a list of Russian and Ukrainian individuals and companies with their assets frozen and banned from entering the EU. Then threaten to move to the most damaging ‘Tier Three’ sanctions – which would hit whole sectors of the Russian economy like banking, arms and energy – unless the Kremlin moves to de-escalate a conflict which EU leaders say it is fuelling by supplying weapons and manpower.

Inevitably, Putin takes a few steps in the right direction, and EU leaders breathe a sigh of relief that they do not yet have to sacrifice their €400bn annual trade with Moscow. But slowly the Russian tanks return to the Ukrainian border, the ceasefires disintegrate, and more Russian-made tanks and weapons seep into the rebel strongholds — again and again the cycle has repeated itself.

Europe’s leaders profess that the plane crash has ended this cycle, and on Thursday it will become apparent exactly what has changed when the EU reveals who else is going to be added to a sanctions list first drafted in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.

The list will go further than ever before, targeting people and companies providing material support to Putin. The EU will also review a set of proposals on potential Tier Three sanctions which could be implemented if Russia does not cooperate with an international investigation into the downing of MH17 and fails to halt the stream of weapons into the country.

Much of the discussion has focused on a potential arms embargo, but only for future sales. That would mean France could still sell Russia its two warships, while Russian money in Britain’s banks would be protected, German companies operating in Russia could continue their work relatively unimpeded, and eastern European nations which get 80% of their gas from Russia could be slightly more confident of the security of their winter gas supplies.

Carnegie Europe’s Lehne does not think the EU will move to any Tier Three sanctions on Thursday. Instead, he says it’s playing the long game. He believes that the gradual escalation of threats combined with an economic squeeze on key allies of Putin is having an impact on the Russian president’s decision-making.

Others think the time has come to get tougher. Elmar Brok, chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Tuesday that Putin left open no “possibility of finding a political solution” and the EU should proceed with stronger sanctions.

The Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite, even made the comparison with appeasement in the Second World War. “In 1930s, Nazism wasn’t stopped, and now aggressive Russian chauvinism isn’t stopped and that resulted in the attack against a civilian plane,” she told a Lithuanian radio station.

Karel Lannoo, head of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, points out that Russia has more to lose than Europe from any restrictions on Russia’s energy sector, which accounts for 50 percent of Russia’s federal budget reserves.

“[The EU] can act in a coordinated way, just show they can have alternate sources of energy, that they are not too dependent on Russia,” he tells TIME. “It’s an oil and gas country, and the moment they don’t have these exports anymore, their economy will fall down.”

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