|President Barack Obama speaks about the government shutdown and debt limit, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. (Charles Dharapak/AP)|
The U.S. leveled its most-explicit allegations yet of Russia’s involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and subsequent efforts to conceal evidence, and European leaders threatened broad new sanctions against Moscow, marking a turning point in the standoff between the West and the Kremlin.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday warned Russian President Vladimir Putin “for the last time” to accede to Western demands to disarm pro-Russian separatists and stabilize Ukraine.
Officials in Europe, meanwhile, departed from their initially muted reaction as anger grew across the continent over the attack that left 298 people dead and the chaos at the crash area in eastern Ukraine. Reports that bodies were being handled haphazardly and that separatist guards on the scene were drunk have caused fury in European countries where victims came from, including the Netherlands.
Mr. Putin, in a Kremlin-website posting overnight, called for an international investigation of the crash site and said that “Russia will do everything possible to shift the current conflict in the east of Ukraine from today’s current military stage to the state of discussion at the negotiation table.”
The Obama administration for the first time publicly charged Mr. Putin’s government with supplying the rebels the long-range rockets used in last Thursday’s strike and also likely providing the separatists with training.
U.S. officials said intelligence also showed the missile batteries used in the attack were returned to Russian soil shortly after the jetliner crashed, suggesting an attempted coverup. American and European leaders demanded Mr. Putin use his influence with the rebels to assist international investigators to examine the crash site, which many believe has already been compromised.
People sign a book of condolence Sunday in Hilversum, Netherlands, during a mass in memory of the victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight. Getty Images
But despite the powerful new impetus to act, there were questions over whether European leaders would at last agree on more-aggressive action and whether the U.S. and Europe would take the most-economically punishing steps against Moscow. The sanctions imposed so far have been narrowly targeted and haven’t applied to broad swaths of the Russian economy.
European Union diplomats said the 28-nation body could start freezing assets of companies and business people close to Mr. Putin as soon as Tuesday.
“We have enormous input about this, which points fingers,” Mr. Kerry told CNN on Sunday. “It points a very clear finger at the separatists.”
Mr. Kerry was cautious about directly blaming Mr. Putin for the disaster, noting that “culpability is a judicial term.” But he and other U.S. officials said the Kremlin bore responsibility for fueling the conflict in eastern Ukraine with arms and heavy military equipment, leading to the tragedy.
U.S. and European officials also cited as a basis for new action the chaos at the crash site and the aggressiveness of the rebels, who they charged are trying to destroy evidence of their involvement in the crash.
Mr. Putin, in his website posting, didn’t directly blame the Ukrainian leadership, saying the downing was a consequence of the renewed hostilities after a failed ceasefire.
“It’s essential for a robust team of experts to work on the site of the crash under the auspices of ICAO, the relevant international commission,” Mr. Putin said, referring to the International Civil Aviation Organization. “Everything must be done to ensure its full and absolute security and guarantee the humanitarian corridors necessary for its work.”
The White House in part is viewing the MH-17 tragedy as a catalyst for a de-escalation of violence that has eluded the West, senior U.S. officials said.
The main assessment the White House is making: What can the U.S. do to shape a response to the dramatic turn in events this past week? Part of that involves quietly sussing out if there is a possible “off-ramp” they could entice Mr. Putin to take to de-escalate the crisis. With that in mind, officials are closely watching Mr. Putin’s response but said they aren’t likely to give him too much time without retaliation.
Some officials who have been pushing Europe to take a harder stance believe the crash marks a watershed.
“In my assessment, this is really a turning point,” Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius said in an interview on Sunday. “If anyone had the illusion that this was only happening in Ukraine, that it had nothing to do with our common concerns—now we can see all these victims from the West.”
French President François Hollande, after phone calls with U.K. and German leaders, demanded the Kremlin compel pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine to provide “free and total” access to the crash site.
“If Russia does not immediately take the necessary measures, consequences will be decided by the European Union when its foreign-affairs council meets on Tuesday,” Mr. Hollande’s office said, publicly hinting for the first time since the crash that France would support ratcheting up sanctions.
Later on Sunday, Mr. Hollande spoke by phone to Mr. Putin, urging him to persuade the separatists to “stop impeding the investigation…and to hand over the black boxes,” Mr. Hollande’s office said.
Italy, a past skeptic of sanctions, issued some of its toughest language yet. “If Russia doesn’t cooperate with the investigation” into the crash, “we are very much ready to support the sanctions,” an Italian foreign-ministry spokesman said.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters his country is sending a delegation to the U.N. to build support for a tough response against Russia in an attempt to get access to the site.
But it remained unclear how hard Europe is willing to push Russia to alter its overall policy in Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been at the center of Europe’s diplomacy, on Sunday worked the phones with leaders of the U.K., France, Australia, the Netherlands, Finland, Ukraine and Russia.