Wednesday 21 February 2018

Kerry makes most explicit US case against Russia over Malaysia jet downing

By Matt Spetalnick and Doina Chiacu

US Secretary of State John Kerry today laid out what he said was overwhelming evidence of Russian complicity in the downing of a Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine as he made the U.S. case against Moscow in the most emphatic and explicit terms yet.

Delivering his points in a blitz of U.S. morning news shows, Kerry demanded that Russia take responsibility for actions of allied separatists suspected of shooting down the passenger plane and he expressed disgust over the rebels' "grotesque" mishandling of victims' bodies at the crash site.

Kerry threatened further sanctions against Moscow and called on European allies, who have lagged behind Washington in imposing penalties over the Ukraine crisis, to take Thursday's plane downing as a "wake-up call" to get tougher with Russia. He also raised the prospect of increased assistance to Ukraine's embattled pro-Western government.

But despite the angry rhetoric, Kerry offered no specific new plans to force Russian President Vladimir Putin, accused by the West of trying to destabilize Ukraine, to back down.

President Barack Obama's Republican critics responded by accusing the administration of being too restrained and called for broader "sectoral" sanctions on Russia's energy and banking industries, something Washington has avoided so far because of the potential damage to the European and global economies.

Kerry's words added to a chorus of anger from Western powers over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which killed all 298 people on board, and the subsequent problems gaining access to the crash site in an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels.

An emergency worker pauses in a truck loaded with bodies of the victims at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, July 19, 2014
An emergency worker pauses in a truck loaded with bodies of the victims at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, July 19, 2014

British PM David Cameron told Mr Putin he must ensure access to the MH17 crash site so victims of the disaster can hold proper funerals for their loved ones.

The Prime Minister spoke to the Russian president for the first time since MH17 was brought down, apparently by pro-Moscow rebels, in eastern Ukraine on Thursday.

Mr Cameron, who was left frustrated by Mr Putin's refusal to speak to him until today, said he had "made clear" his demands in the phone call which came as the European Union looked set to impose tougher sanctions on Russia over its support for rebels in Ukraine.

The Prime Minister said: "I've just spoken to president Putin. I made clear he must ensure access to the crash site so the victims can have proper funerals."

While stopping short of placing direct blame on Moscow, Kerry put forth the most pointed and detailed U.S. accusations so far that Russia provided pro-Moscow insurgents with the sophisticated anti-aircraft systems used to down the plane.

He said the United States has seen major supplies moving into Ukraine from Russia in the last month, including a 150-vehicle convoy of armored personnel carriers, tanks and rocket launchers transferred to the separatists several weeks ago.

He also said the United States intercepted conversations about the transfer to separatists of the Russian SA-11 radar-guided SA11 missile system it blames for the plane downing.

U.S. authorities have seen a video of a missile launcher - with a least one rocket missing from its battery - moving back into Russia from a rebel-held area, Kerry said.

"There's (an) enormous amount of evidence, even more evidence that I just documented, that points to the involvement of Russia in providing these systems, training the people on them," Kerry said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

Moscow denies involvement and has accused the Ukrainian military in the shootdown.

A U.S. official familiar with Washington's assessments of the incident said Russia was believed to have decided to reinforce the rebels with more advanced weaponry because of concern that Ukrainian government forces had been making gains.

The plane downing is widely seen a potential turning point in the Ukraine crisis that has taken relations between Russia and the West to a post-Cold War low. Kerry, who spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, by phone on Saturday, called on Moscow to publicly seek responsible action from the separatists, including access to the crash site.

"It is clear that Russia supports the separatists, supplies the separatists, encourages the separatists, trains the separatists. And Russia needs to step up and make a difference here," Kerry said on NBC's "Meet the Press" program.

He said foreign investigators have been given only limited access to the crash site. "Drunken separatists have been piling bodies into trucks and removing them from the site ... What's happening is really grotesque and it is contrary to everything President Putin and Russia said they would do."

U.S. officials have expressed hope that European anger over the plane downing would help unify the 28-member EU bloc, which stands to lose more by punishing Russia since it does 10 times more trade with Russia than the United States does.

Kerry challenged the Europeans to become assertive.

"It would help enormously if some countries in Europe that have been a little reluctant to move would now recognize this wakeup call and join the United States and President Obama in taking the lead, and also stepping up," he said.


American lawmakers also called on Putin to take action, with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein saying on CNN, "Putin, you have to man up."

Kerry's sharpened charges against Moscow suggest that Washington could move faster to expand its sanctions. But the consensus in Washington is the next phase, if it comes, will involve more surgical targeting of Russian oligarchs and others close to Putin, not sweeping curbs on entire sectors.

"The president is prepared to take additional steps," Kerry told Fox News. "We are discussing with the Ukrainians right now what they need, what else we can do." He said all options were "on the table" except sending in U.S. troops.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is traditionally hawkish on foreign policy, said on NBC that Washington should arm "Ukraine so they can defend themselves." Obama has been wary of doing this fear of escalating the conflict and creating a proxy war.

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