President Obama called out Russian President Vladimir Putin for escalating the conflict in eastern Ukraine during an address to the White House press corps on the downed Malaysia Airlines passenger jet late Friday morning. He described the event as “an outrage of unspeakable proportions,” though he said at this time only one American citizen is known to have been aboard the aircraft.
He confirmed that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 “was shot down over Ukraine near the Russian border,” adding that American intelligence found that “evidence indicates the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists.” The president was careful to not assign direct blame for the shooting, but did enumerate the recent spate of aircraft downed by militia-launched missiles. He pointed out, however, that the separatists were supported by Russia and could not engage in the level of military action they had achieved without Russian weapons and training.
“There has to be a credible international investigation into what happened,” Obama said. “The UN Security Council has endorsed this investigation and we will hold all members, including Russia, to their word.”
To make that possible, the president affirmed that there must be an effective ceasefire until the investigation is complete.
He indicated that he considered this further evidence of the need for a de-escalation of the conflict and real peace in Ukraine. He reaffirmed Ukrainian national sovereignty and criticized Putin’s unwillingness to follow through on declarations of peace. He also put pressure on separatists to abide by a ceasefire. “This should snap everyone’s heads to attention,” he said. “We don’t have time for propaganda. We don’t have time for games.”
The president considers responsibility for the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine to rest almost entirely on Putin. He said that if Putin makes the decision to not allow fighters and heavy equipment to continue flowing into eastern Ukraine, it would stop.
Obama referenced his Thursday conversation with Putin and said that Putin had expressed displeasure at the sanctions placed on Russia. Stating that sanctions had already been ratcheted up prior to the plane’s downing, the president insisted that America had the capacity to increase sanctions on Russia. He said that Putin must ask himself if he will continue to support the separatists, risking further escalation of conflict and sanctions, or if he is willing to work with the Ukrainian government.
“I made it clear to President Putin, our preferred path is to solve this diplomatically,” Obama said. When asked about possible military action on the part of America, he said that we would continue to work with NATO to fulfill our treaty obligations. “This certainly will be a wake-up call for Europe and the world that there are consequences and this cannot be contained,” he said.
The president is playing a careful game. He has made it clear that there are no answers beyond the how of the MH17 tragedy. We do not know who, or why. But, he made it just as clear that in his mind, directly or indirectly, all roads in the Ukrainian situation lead to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. Obama was explicit in not blaming Putin for the surface-to-air missile strike. He was just as explicit in blaming Putin for not making peace in Ukraine a reality. He does not want America to be the instrument of peace in Ukraine, and he hopes sanctions will motivate Russia to do what he believes is its job.