With an investigation hobbled for the fourth day, efforts to get to the bottom of the crash of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 has turned into a high-level battle of dueling narratives.
A visibly exasperated US president Barack Obama accused pro-Russian separatists of attempting to conceal evidence, and said Russian president Vladimir Putin bears “direct responsibility” to get them to cooperate.
“What exactly are they trying to hide?” Obama asked in a statement he read at the White House this morning. Obama repeated prior assertions that Russia had armed the separatists with heavy arms that include anti-aircraft weapons. The US says, for instance, that some 150 truckloads of material, including tanks, artillery, and rocket launchers, went from Russia to the separatists last weekend. The US has also said that preliminary evidence points to the separatists as the probable culprit in the downing of the airliner with a surface-to-air missile.
But Putin’s government also held a news conference today, in which it denied that Russia had supplied the separatists with a BUK missile system “or any other weapons,” and suggested that the Ukrainian government is the prime suspect in the crash. Air Force Lieutenant General Igor Makushev said that Russian radar detected the presence of Ukrainian fighter jets close to the Malaysian flight, suggesting that one of them may have shot down the airliner.
“Russian air space control systems detected a Ukrainian Air Force plane, presumably an SU-25 (fighter jet), scrambling in the direction of the Malaysian Boeing,” Makushev said, quoted by Reuters. “The distance of the SU-25 plane from the Boeing was from 3 to 5 kilometres (2 to 3 miles).”
Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper is the first to impose new penalties against Russia in response to the crash. He said today that Canada will impose unspecified sanctions against “a broad range of entities.” “The outrageous and criminal act of shooting down a civilian airliner last week is a direct product of Russia’s military aggression and illegal occupation of Ukraine, and demonstrates the need for the international community to continue applying pressure on the Putin regime,” he said in a statement.
European foreign ministers are to meet in Brussels tomorrow to discuss the crash and possible harsher EU sanctions against Russia. Prior to the crash, Italy and Germany had been the primary votes for holding off on new sanctions, but public horror over the crash and the treatment of bodies at the site may influence the politics.
Today’s statements out of Moscow show a Putin undaunted by the threat of sanctions, suggesting that he still thinks he can compete for control of public opinion about the crash.