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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Proof of the Pudding Is In the Plane

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President Putin's decision to support the U.S. anti-terrorism operation -- and to nudge Russia's Central Asian satellites to do the same -- was perceived as something of a turning point in Moscow's relationship with the West. And legitimately so, for the move implied: We may not be full partners, but we are clearly no longer enemies.

But perhaps a more accurate litmus test of the degree to which Russia has shed its Soviet-era mentality will be its stance on last week's crash of a Tu-154 passenger jet, which the Pentagon has blamed on a Ukrainian missile gone astray during military exercises.

The blast, which killed 78 people, demands a merciless investigation that could reveal some nasty truths about Ukraine, Russia's strategically important neighbor with whom relations are just starting to warm up.

Moscow must apply the full force of its influence on Kiev to ensure the probe is as thorough, transparent and conclusive as possible. And this will be politically riskier than the decision to support Washington's strikes.

With that decision, Putin may have angered some hawks by implicitly backing the deployment of U.S. troops in Russia's backyard, but, overall, his move put Moscow in a win-win situation: It kept the nation from becoming an outcast, placed a brawny American buffer between Russia and the imminent warfare on its southern flank and helped tone down Western criticism of the Chechnya war.

All that in return for some intelligence data that Russia, on its own, couldn't have used much anyway and a bit of illusory independence for its Central Asian neighbors. Not a bad deal.

With Ukraine, the stakes are higher: a $1.4 billion gas debt Moscow still hopes to collect, a promising market for Russian firms and a slew of up-in-the-air treaties.

Putin has shown that he understands how badly his image could suffer -- in the West, at least -- if he blindly defends Ukraine's military and allows Kiev to withhold information.

While he initially said he had "no reason to doubt our Ukrainian partners," two days later, as Washington became ever firmer in its claims, Moscow said the president was "not satisfied" with the evidence from Ukraine.

Putin has drawn fire once before for hush-hushing a military accident -- recall the Kursk disaster, which Putin himself has called the lowest point of his presidency.

With the Tu-154 probe still in full swing, it seems especially symbolic that the Kursk has finally been lifted, rattling its chains like the Ghost of Christmas Past -- a sobering reminder of how not to handle an investigation, even one that threatens to shame the military and dampen relations with an old neighbor.

If Putin ever wished for a way to make amends for Kursk, here's his chance to start.