Australian Armed Police Risk Tension With Ukraine Rebels

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Russian Msta-S self-propelled howitzers fire during military exercises in the Volgograd region in southern Russia on April 2, 2014. Close

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Photographer: Andrey Kronberg/AFP/Getty Images

Russian Msta-S self-propelled howitzers fire during military exercises in the Volgograd region in southern Russia on April 2, 2014.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s plan to deploy armed police officers to the site of the Malaysian Air crash risks increasing tension in the Ukrainian territory held by Russian-backed rebels, according to political analysts based in Berlin and Brussels.

Abbott said yesterday he was dispatching 100 Australian Federal Police, some of them armed, and members of Australia’s military, to help recover bodies and evidence from Flight MH17 which crashed on July 17 near Donetsk in the east of the country killing 298 passengers and crew. Abbott said Australia wants to bring home its dead.

“They must be nuts,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for central and eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said in a phone interview. “It’s a very dangerous proposal and will be seen as a provocation by the separatists and the Russians.”

Ukrainians’ desire for closer links with Europe, the U.S. and their allies has long been a source of tension with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who intervened in Ukraine after pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych stepped down in February, fueling the five-month insurgency. Russia accused the U.S. of fomenting the uprising that led to Yanukovych’s ouster.

Spokesmen at the Russian Defense and Foreign Ministries weren’t available when contacted by Bloomberg.

Unarmed Dutch

A surface-to-air missile fired from territory held by the rebels shot down the plane, the U.S. said, stopping short of alleging direct Russian involvement. Putin’s artillery is firing on Ukrainian military positions from inside Russia, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said this week.

The Netherlands will decide this weekend on whether to send an unarmed police mission to help secure the crash site, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told parliament yesterday. Abbott stressed yesterday that many of the Australian police officers won’t be armed and it is close to finalizing an agreement with Ukraine for the deployment to go ahead. The operation, which is part of an international mission that doesn’t include the U.S., is expected to last no longer than a few weeks, Abbott said.

“Of course, I myself have moments when I think: send in the marines,” Rutte told parliament in The Hague yesterday. “But we have to weigh the geopolitical ramifications that would have. This is not an area where this would remain without consequences. So we have to build coalitions with all players involved very carefully.”

The Netherlands is sending a separate mission of 40 unarmed military police to the site to help complete the forensic work and gather evidence, Rutte said this week. The U.K. has sent one forensics specialist to Kiev and nine British scientists are working in the Netherlands to help identify bodies and secure evidence.

The U.K. is ready to offer logistical support and is keeping in close contact with the Australians and Dutch over how it can assist, though it won’t be sending police or technicians to Ukraine, the Foreign Office said.

Ukraine Agrees

“We believe a U.K. armed presence in eastern Ukraine would not be appropriate,” the Foreign Office said in an e-mailed statement. “The U.K. stands ready to provide constructive support to the mission.”

The Netherlands, Australia and Ukraine are considering proposing a United Nations resolution for an armed mission to secure the crash site, Dutch news agency ANP reported yesterday, citing diplomatic officials familiar with the matter that it didn’t identify. Australia, a Security Council member, will submit the resolution if officials at the site can’t perform duties in the next few days, it reported.

Australia earlier dispatched 90 police to help with the crash probe. The reinforcements will first fly to the Netherlands. There were 194 Dutch nationals and 27 Australians on MH17.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko this week signed an accord under which the Netherlands will lead the international probe into the crash. The Foreign Ministry in Kiev said a separate agreement was signed yesterday for an “Australian mission of civil police” to help protect the mission. There was no mention from either Poroshenko or the Foreign Ministry on whether the Australians would be armed.

Drunk Rebels

Dmitry Gau, the spokesman for rebels, wouldn’t immediately comment on the Australian plans to carry firearms, when contacted by Bloomberg News.

Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, warned against sending armed teams into eastern Ukraine to search for victims.

“There’s nothing normal in east Ukraine right now,” Erixon said in a phone interview. “Small events can trigger very large reactions from the rebels and the Russian government.”

Karl-Heinz Kamp, academic director at the German government’s Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin, said the Australian military is experienced and wouldn’t take risks, especially in a situation “where some of the rebels are drunk.”

“The only way the Australians are going to send armed officers into rebel territory is if there’s some kind of back-room deal,” Kamp said by phone. “It’s totally far-fetched but if it’s true, maybe the Russians are under such pressure to do something they told the rebels ‘you have to accept this.’”

To contact the reporter on this story: Leon Mangasarian in Berlin at lmangasarian@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net Balazs Penz, Jim McDonald

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