In a sharp challenge to Moscow, the Obama administration came close Friday to directly accusing Russian-backed separatists of destroying a Malaysian jetliner over eastern Ukraine. President Obama called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to scale back support for his rebel clients and accept an international investigation into the tragedy.
Nearly 300 people were killed in the crash of Malaysian Airlines MH 17, Mr. Obama said in televised remarks at mid-day. None of them had any connection to the civil conflict raging on the ground 20,000 feet below their flight.
“Their deaths are an outrage of unspeakable proportions,” said Obama.
The president’s remarks, as well as statements from Defense Department briefers at the Pentagon and Ambassador Samantha Power at the UN, seemed a coordinated effort to try and use the MH 17 disaster as a means to end the fighting in Ukraine’s disputed areas, at least for the moment. In essence the US may be trying to use guilt and the shock of innocent deaths to get Moscow to rethink its strategy of keeping eastern Ukraine on a slow boil.
President Putin, of course, is likely to resist this way of framing the story of the airliner’s shoot-down. Moscow’s competing strategy appears to center on avoiding discussion of the actual incident, while blaming Ukraine and the US for starting a conflict that created a deadly situation for civilians.
“Today, Kiev declared a full closure of the airspace in the conducting of the so-called anti-terrorist operation,” Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Friday. “Why couldn’t this have been done earlier, not later when [there were] hundreds of victims?”
The US, for its part, was careful not to overstep the bounds of its evidence. As Obama noted, US intelligence has established that the MH 17 jet was struck by a sophisticated, Russian-made ground-to-air missile fired from eastern Ukraine. That missile was launched from “an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine,” Obama said.
At the Pentagon, the Defense Department spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said the US has no direct knowledge that Ukrainian separatists have actually deployed the vehicle-based anti-aircraft systems from which Russian SA-11 or SA-17 missiles are fired. The US does not know about such a system “making the transit” from Russian territory into abutting eastern Ukraine, said Admiral Kirby.
But prior to Thursday’s tragedy US officials had publicly warned about separatist units receiving training in the operation of high-tech anti-aircraft systems within Russia. And large flows of arms have continued across the border, including tanks and armored vehicles, according to Admiral Kirby.
The US does not know whether it was a separatist unit or a Russian unit that fired the deadly missile, said Kirby. It does not know if a Russian anti-aircraft system was driven across the border and handed off to Ukrainian rebels.
“But I’d like to just kind of bring you back to the larger point here,” Kirby told reporters. “That is these aircraft are being shot down, and while it’s unclear exactly who’s pulling the trigger here, it’s pretty clear that it’s doing nothing to de-escalate the tension inside Ukraine and to bring this crisis to a peaceful resolution.”
The question now is whether US and international pressure will convince Putin to halt or substantially scale back his support for Ukraine’s separatist movement. The current East-West confrontation over the Ukraine fighting echoes the bad old days of the Cold War and has brought US-Russian relations to their lowest point in years.
After an emergency session Friday, the full UN Security Council called for a “thorough and independent international investigation” into the destruction of the airliner. At an appearance with church leaders in Moscow, Putin called for an end to fighting and an immediate start to peace negotiations in the region.