The key question now is how far the Europeans are willing to go.

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In the days since the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, Russian media and government leaders have scrambled to deflect blame, spinning theories that range from the implausible to the absurd.

A Russian general, for instance, claimed Monday that a Ukrainian fighter jet was near the airliner, implying that Flight 17 was shot down to generate anti-Russian sentiment. A pro-Russia separatist in Ukraine suggested that corpses had been planted aboard Flight 17. And, in a move calculated to whip up anti-Ukrainian sentiment, state-run Russian TV aired a wholly unverified report that a Ukrainian solider had crucified a 3-year-old.

For people who care about facts, however, all the evidence continues to point toward Russian-backed rebels armed with surface-to-air missile systems supplied by Moscow and, according to U.S. intelligence, returned to Russian soil shortly after the crash. Intercepted conversations show that the rebels thought they were targeting a Ukrainian military plane but brought down the passenger jetliner instead.

The crash was another tragedy in a world already awash in death and destruction. But amid the sorrow and outrage, there is opportunity in this crisis. If it forces the world to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin's belligerent intentions and brutish tactics, then the 298 victims will not have died in vain.

PUTIN'S STATEMENT: This should bring people together

It appears that Europe, the most vital continent in this crisis, might be finally awakening to the threat. Public sentiment in the Netherlands, which accounted for the majority of the victims, has moved dramatically against Putin amid reports of bodies rotting in fields and personal belongings being looted. Meanwhile, leaders of Britain, France and Germany declared Europe's need to "reconsider its approach to Russia."

The key question now is how far the Europeans are willing to go. Will they settle for some accommodations, of the sort taken Monday, to return the bodies and open the crash site to independent investigators? Or will the Europeans take the necessary steps to protect themselves from Putin's wider effort to re-establish Russian hegemony?

The latter would involve applying tougher economic sanctions, moving swiftly to bolster a NATO they have let atrophy, and weaning themselves off their Russian natural gas dependency.

The European Union is much more intertwined with Russia than is the United States, which explains its prior hesitancy to act. Its 28 members get 30% of their natural gas from Russia, with a great variance from country to country. Standing up to Russia would involve sacrifices and a hit to economies still fragile from the global economic crisis.

But it must be done. Putin has spent recent years testing how far he can go, sending troops into Georgia, annexing Crimea and even conducting military maneuvers near the border of the Baltic states. For the most part, he has found European resolve sorely lacking and signaled his intent to keep testing the limits.

The airline tragedy has put human faces on Putin's territorial ambitions. If it doesn't galvanize the West to thwart him, it's hard to see what would.

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

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