On one hand, he offered conciliatory words in a video statement, oddly released in the middle of the night, while the separatists allied with Moscow in southeastern Ukraine released the bodies of the victims and turned over the black box flight recorders from the doomed aircraft to Malaysian officials.
However, two senior military officers forcefully demanded that the United States show publicly any proof that rebels fired the fatal missile, and again suggested that the Ukrainian military shot down the Malaysia Airlines jet despite the fact that Ukraine has not used antiaircraft weapons in the fight along its eastern border.
Putin seemed to respond to the outraged international demands growing daily that he intervene personally to rein in the rebels — particularly to halt the degrading chaos surrounding the recovery of the remains.
But at the same time, Moscow did not concede that it was at fault.
“Putin is trying to find his own variation of a twin-track decision, because he does not have a clear exit,” said Gleb O. Pavlovsky, a political consultant who once worked for the Kremlin.
The pressure continued to expand.
President Obama delivered yet another personal rebuke to Putin from the White House lawn over the intransigence of the rebels toward the international investigation, hours before they agreed to more cooperation.
In addition, an initial expert analysis of photographs of the airplane’s fuselage found that the damage was consistent with being struck by the type of missile that U.S. officials said was used.
On Tuesday, Russia faces the threat of far more serious sanctions from its main trading partners in Western Europe.
“Of course this is a strong blow to him, a strong blow to his strategy,” said Mr. Pavlovsky, referring to the fact that Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine have been discredited globally, due to suspicions that they shot down the aircraft and their handling of the crash site.
“It touches him too,” Mr. Pavlovsky said, “He wants to get out, but to get out without having lost.”
Mr. Obama called for Putin to “pivot away” from the rebels, linking him directly to their abuse of the crash site.
“Russia, and President Putin in particular, has direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation,” he said in brief remarks.
“President Putin says that he supports a full and fair investigation and I appreciate those words, but they have to be supported by actions.”
Putin’s statement was issued on the Kremlin website at 1:40 a.m.
Monday on video, with analysts suggesting the timing was aimed more at Washington than Russia.
His usual swagger seemed absent; instead he looked pasty and unsure, avoiding talking into the camera directly and leaning on a desk.
The statement did not break new ground, either.
The Russian leader repeated his support for a thorough international investigation, and said Russia would pursue its efforts to move the fight over the future of southeastern Ukraine from the battlefield to the negotiating table.
Putin did not address directly any accusations of Russian complicity in downing the aircraft.
By the end of the day there was one small diplomatic victory.
The Malaysian government dealt directly with the leadership of the Russian-supported Donetsk People’s Republic, the breakaway faction in southeastern Ukraine, in negotiating the release of the bodies and the flight recorders.
Amidst all the negotiating, the Ukrainian government pressed its attack on Donetsk, firing on rebel positions in the northwest of the city and killing at least three civilians.
Ukraine denied that it hit civilian areas, but heavy damage in the city cast doubt on that assertion.
In his statement, Putin also warned that he was suspicious of all the criticism directed at the Kremlin.
“No one should and no one has the right to use this tragedy to pursue their own political goals,” he said.
Putin often seethes with distrust and anger that the United States seeks to exploit any opening to weaken Russia, a widespread sentiment in Russia reflected in his high approval ratings.
The entire Ukraine confrontation is rooted in his determination to stop the West from wrestling Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit.
Russians, too, exhibited a certain defensive anger about the current accusations, convinced that the West leapt to condemn them no matter what the issue.
Anastasia Lukina, 30, a sales manager in Moscow, said either side might have shot down the plane.
“So the West says it wants a full investigation, but they’ve already accused us of killing those people?” she said.
“We all know what the conclusion to that investigation will be. So why even bother pretending? Russia is the world’s scapegoat.”
That is the theme of much of coverage on state-run television, which has also aired all manner of theories lifted from the dark corners of the Web.
One such theory holds that whoever shot down the plane was actually gunning for Putin, whose plane was over eastern Europe at the time, returning from Latin America, for example.
Another argues that the bodies were actually from the Malaysian Airways jet that disappeared six months ago — dumped only now to make the separatists look bad.
“In Russia, no one thinks that Russia is guilty,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who specializes in studying Russia’s political elite.
The Kremlin actually spent months using state-run television to build the case that the Kiev government are a pack of “fascists,” bent on killing the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.
It has softened that message somewhat in recent weeks, but not abandoned it.
Hence two senior Russian military commanders, sitting in a vast briefing room and dwarfed by the giant electronic screens overhead, used various satellite images and charts to raise a series of rhetorical questions that suggested that Ukraine and the United States deliberately plotted to shoot down the passenger jet.
The unusual bilingual briefing was broadcast live on state-run television.
“According to U.S. declarations, they have satellite images that confirm that the missile was launched by the rebels, said Lt. Gen. Andrei Kartopolov, of the Russian General Staff.
“But nobody has seen these images.”
He called for them to be released, hinting that they were taken by an experimental military satellite that was orbiting over eastern Ukraine on Thursday because Washington knew what it would photograph.
Among other accusations, the Russians said a Ukrainian Sukhoi-25 fighter jet that was airborne at the time briefly approached the same 33,000-feet altitude as the Boeing 777 and was within range to bring it down with an air-to-air missile.
As for Russia, it had nothing to do with the arming the militiamen, General Kartopolov said.
“I would like to emphasize that the Russian Federation did not deliver to the militiamen Buk antiaircraft missile systems, nor any other types of weapons or military equipment,” he said.
Ultimately, Russian policy might actually tilt according to what emerges from the investigation.
If there is even a hint of doubt, Moscow might cling to both its support for the rebels and claims of its own virtue, analysts suggested.
“If there is not 100 percent proof, then Russia will continue to say” that they are not at fault, said Alexei V. Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
“If there is 95 or even 99 percent, then Russia will not agree with it. They can continue to support the insurgents in the east.”
Source: The New York Times