Putin Risks Isolation as Rebels Release MH17 Crash Victims

Jul 22, 2014 2:21 am ET

(Updates with Russian ambassador to Malaysia in fifth- sixth paragraphs, see EXT2 <GO>.)

July 22 (Bloomberg) -- Pro-Russian rebels released bodies gathered from the crash site of the Malaysian jet that was shot down over eastern Ukraine last week as U.S. and European leaders pressed their message that President Vladimir Putin risks isolating himself on the world stage.

The corpses stored in trains left for the city of Kharkiv after a rescue effort that was hampered by local insurgents and sparked a global controversy. As European foreign ministers head to Brussels for a meeting today to discuss further sanctions, France raised the possibility that it would drop plans to sell the second of two helicopter carriers to Russia.

In Washington, President Barack Obama urged Putin to rein in the rebels, who he said were “Russia-backed.”

Russia is locked in its worst diplomatic crisis with the U.S. and its allies since the end of the Cold War. Already sanctioned for his decision to annex Crimea in March, Putin is now facing the prospect of further penalties after the U.S. indicated that it believes the Russian military supplied the missile that downed MH17. Putin counters that his opponents are using the incident for “selfish political gains.”

Evidence Faked

Russian had no role in shooting down the plane and the separatists don’t have anti-aircraft missiles with the range to reach a commercial airline, Russian Ambassador to Malaysia Lyudmila Vorobyeva said at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur. Video tape allegedly showing sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles being moved to Russia from rebel-held territory and audio recordings of militants discussing the attacks have been discredited.

“Until now, there were only groundless accusations, only fake evidence, fake pictures, fake recordings of conversations,” she said.

The downing of MH17 will dominate the meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels today as pressure mounts on leaders to extend the scope of sanctions against Russia. French President Francois Hollande said yesterday he is considering canceling the planned sale of a helicopter carrier ship to Russia.

“The public outcry in the EU countries affected by the tragedy increases the domestic pressure on EU leaders to follow the U.S. and impose ‘third-round’ sanctions against Russia, which the EU has so far has eschewed,” Tatiana Orlova, senior economist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in London, said by e-mail.

Black Boxes

At a news conference in Donetsk, Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, handed the “black box” flight and data recorders to Malaysian specialists. The two sides agreed that Malaysia would analyze the boxes together with the International Civil Aviation Organization, he said.

The separatists, who deny they fired the missile that downed the plane, declared a unilateral cease-fire around the crash site, according to Borodai. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also said the separatists agreed to grant access to the crash site.

The accord to hand over the remains of 282 people to the Netherlands was reached with Borodai, Najib said yesterday at his official residence in the administrative capital of Putrajaya.

Refrigerated Train

Malaysia lost 43 citizens when the Boeing Co. 777 on Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed July 17. It was the second-worst hit nation after the Netherlands with 193 passengers, while Australia had 27, according to a statement from Malaysian Airline System Bhd.

Refrigerated train cars carrying corpses and body parts of crash victims had left for the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said yesterday at a news conference in The Hague. The aim is to transport bodies to the Netherlands as soon as possible for identification, he said.

France may cancel the sale of a second Mistral helicopter carrier ship to Russia if the European Union decides to expand its sanctions.

The second ship, due in 2016, hasn’t yet been paid for, making it possible to withhold the sale if the EU agrees to broaden its measures on Russia, Hollande said at the annual presidential press dinner in Paris. Sanctions can’t be retroactive and wouldn’t cover delivery of the first warship, which is already paid for and due for delivery in October, Hollande said.

Second Ship

“Can the rest of the contract be honored?” Hollande told reporters about the second warship. “That will depend on Russia’s attitude.”

Putin is gathering his Security Council today to discuss issues relating to Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as the U.S. and Europe threaten to increase economic pressure.

The site of the crash at Grabovo, less than 60 miles (97 kilometers) from Russia, became a focus of international outrage as armed rebels hovered over the investigation, making reclamation of wreckage and corpses more difficult. Speaking at the White House yesterday, President Obama said Putin has “direct responsibility” to compel separatists to stop hampering a probe.

While representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had “pretty good access” to the site, no security perimeter was set up around the area yesterday, according to Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE.

“There seems to be some progress, but it is going step by step,” Rutte said yesterday.

Kremlin Video

As leaders from London to Washington signaled that Putin risks becoming a pariah, the Russian leader suggested they were playing politics. In a video posted on the Kremlin’s website after a series of phone calls with world leaders two days ago, he blamed the downing of the plane on the Ukraine conflict and said that international investigators should have full access.

The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously yesterday to approve a resolution, drafted by Australia, calling for an international probe into the incident, unimpeded access to the crash site and an end to military activities around the wreckage. Russia is one of five veto-wielding council members.

Worldwide Scorn

As Putin confronted worldwide scorn over the crash, Germany and the U.K. sent varying signals on whether EU foreign ministers will agree on punishing Russia for its alleged role in downing the plane.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the EU’s 28 member states have to “increase pressure” on Russia, though “it’ll be no easy meeting” today in Brussels.

A U.K. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private, said the Dutch government had requested that the EU delay actions that might provoke Russia until the bodies of passengers and crew on flight MH17 were recovered.

Later, after the trains departed, Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that “the first step should be further EU sanctions at the Foreign Affairs Council tomorrow with a view to ratcheting up the pressure further on Russia in the future if President Putin does not change course.”

Satellite Images

Top Russian commanders displayed satellite and other images that they said backed up their contention that the U.S. and Ukrainian conclusions that the plane was downed by a rebel-fired missile don’t reflect the facts.

Separatists had at least three Buk missile systems, also known by their NATO designation SA-11 Gadfly, Ukrainian state security official Vitaliy Nayda said on July 19. Three were transported back to Russia 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 images were “manipulated,” Russia’s military said. Vorobyeva, the Russian ambassador to Malaysia, said Russian analysis of the video indicated the missiles were in Ukrainian territory and that Russia never supplied the rebels with Buk missiles.

“They only have small portable air-defense systems that are able to shoot up to 5 kilometers,” she said. “That’s all. In spite of all the accusations, we have never provided them with more sophisticated air defense systems. And those portable systems, they have captured from the Ukrainian army.”

Air-Defense Systems

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters that Ukraine’s armed forces haven’t fired surface-to-air missiles, that the rocket used to down the plane came from Russia and that those who fired it had received training in Russia. He said the Netherlands and Ukraine’s international partners should lead the investigation into the crash.

During the UN debate yesterday, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power faulted Russia for not doing enough to exert pressure on the rebels.

“Russia could take back all of the surface-to-air missiles, tanks and other heavy weaponry that it has delivered to them,” Power said.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin responded that “there’s no need to turn a discussion of a tragedy into a farce,” as he pressed his government’s contention that Ukraine may have shot down the plane.

He said investigators must examine why Ukraine’s anti- aircraft radar was “working at an all-time high” on the day of the crash.

--With assistance from Vladimir Kuznetsov, Henry Meyer, Stepan Kravchenko and Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow, Daryna Krasnolutska, Daria Marchak and Volodymyr Verbyany in Kiev, Brian Parkin in Berlin, Margaret Talev, Angela Greiling Keane and David Lerman in Washington, Fred Pals in Amsterdam, Robert Hutton in London, Shamim Adam in Kuala Lumpur, Sangwon Yoon in Cairo and Gregory Viscusi in Paris.