Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing intensified international pressure to respond to U.S. and Ukrainian claims that flight MH17 was downed using a missile system supplied by his nation’s military.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that Russia provided the missile that Ukrainian rebels used to shoot down the Malaysian Air jetliner on July 17, killing 298 passengers and crew, U.S. Secretary of State said in television interviews.
“There’s a build-up of extraordinary circumstantial evidence,” Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “We picked up the imagery of this launch. We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing.”
Putin confronts worldwide scorn just as the U.S. and its allies were trying to push him into a corner over the annexation of Crimea and his support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. The U.S. and Europe tightened sanctions last week, and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron told Putin on a call yesterday that the attack was “totally unacceptable,” his office said in a statement.
“Russia risks becoming a pariah state if it does not behave properly,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said yesterday in an interview on Sky News. “We now need to use the sense of outrage that is clear to get a further round of sanctions tightening against Russia.”
Cameron said earlier yesterday that he agreed with his French and German counterparts that Europe should be ready to impose further sanctions on Russia at a meeting July 22.
Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that his armed forces had fired no missiles in the conflict, and that the people who used the system that hit the Malaysian airliner may have “come from Russia.”
U.S. President Barack Obama on July 18 decried what he termed Putin’s refusal to “de-escalate the situation.” While the Russian president has blamed the Ukrainian government, saying the crash wouldn’t have happened had it not fomented the conflict in the east, the administration in Kiev says it has proof that the plane was brought down by a Russian missile. The rebels deny shooting down the plane.
Separatists had at least three Russian-made surface-to-air missile systems, known by their NATO designation SA-11 Gadfly, Ukraine state security official Vitaliy Nayda said on July 19. As part of a cover-up of who fired the missile, three of the systems were transported back to Russia just hours after the plane was shot down, he said. Nayda displayed photos that he said showed them on the road to the Russian border.
The Gadfly, known locally as the Buk-M, is a radar-guided weapon that can locate a target at a range of 140 miles and reach altitudes as high as about 72,000 feet, according to the army-technology.com website.
The crash site at Grabovo, less than 60 miles from the Russian border, is providing a focal point for international outrage as armed rebels hover over the investigation, making the reclamation of wreckage and corpses more difficult.
With limbs and bodies still scattered around the area, governments around the world are clamoring to be given greater access to bring the remains home. Contradictory reports about the bodies, and eyewitness accounts of rebels and local miners sifting over the victims’ possessions, are also hampering an accurate inspection, said Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Out of Control
Even Putin can’t control the armed rebels on the ground, said Ukraine’s Ambassador to Singapore, Pavlo Sultansky, who referred to the gunmen as terrorists.
“We are stuck,” he said today in an interview. “The crash site is under control of the terrorists. There are hundreds of them. They are well-armed and unmanageable. Even Putin has no power to command them to do this, do that. Generally, he’s manipulating these puppets. But on the ground, he has no control.”
The site is “being treated more like a garden clean-up than a forensic investigation,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in an interview with Sydney-based 2GB radio.
Australia is seeking a United Nations resolution calling for investigators to be given unfettered access to the site, according to an official in Cameron’s office in London, who spoke on condition of anonymity. It will be voted on today.
International leaders consulted by Abbott are now “firmer and sterner” on the need for justice, he told journalists in Canberra.
“The rebels have an interest in hiding evidence and are probably under orders and possibly being helped by their Russian sponsors,” 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. “They want all incriminating evidence removed before international investigators are let in.”
At the site yesterday, Bociurkiw said he had heard that refrigerated trains would transport the corpses to an area controlled by the Kiev government. He didn’t know where.
Pro-Russian separatists were holding a train containing 192 bodies from the crash in Torez, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine’s government said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. The emergency ministry has recovered 251 bodies, according to the statement.
The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic has equipment from MH17 that may be the flight recorders, the group’s prime minister, Alexander Borodai, said in a website statement yesterday. “We are waiting for experts to pass on the stuff,” he said.
The conflict in east Ukraine is raging on, even as the eyes of the world focus on the crash.
Insurgents shelled the downtown area of Luhansk yesterday and damaged a school, a hostel and other buildings, Vladyslav Seleznyov, a military spokesman, said in comments on Facebook. The insurgents are using Grad multiple rocket systems and mortars, he said.
Ukrainian troops are holding their positions near the airports of Luhansk and Donetsk -- both about 60 miles from the crash site -- and widened the area they have under their control, the Defense Ministry said in a statement on its website. Government troops repelled all the rebels’ attacks.
While the diplomatic pressure on Putin to disown the rebels and help end the conflict in eastern Ukraine is growing, building the political will in Europe to force him to do so may prove difficult. The European Union relies on Russia for about 30 percent of its gas, according to European Commission data, making some countries reluctant to act.
One group of countries, which runs in an arc from Estonia in the northeast through Austria and down to Greece in the southeast, gets more than 75 percent of its gas imports from Russia.
(An earlier version of this story was corrected because the Cameron call was described as taking place today, when it occurred yesterday.)