White House seeks to build international pressure on Putin

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The Obama administration is furiously working to build support for a tough international response to Russia following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the Russia-Ukraine border.

President Obama spent most of Friday on the phone with global leaders, seeking to build pressure on Russian militants battling Ukraine’s government to allow full access to the crash site near Russia’s border.

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Obama spoke with United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot, while Vice President Biden spoke to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Poland Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

In the call with Merkel, a key player if the administration is to win broader support for tougher sanctions on Russia, Obama and the German leader affirmed the need for all parties to guarantee investigators full and unfettered access to the crash site.

The two also agreed to continue efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and “emphasized that Russia bears a clear responsibility to deny separatists in eastern Ukraine continued access to heavy weapons and other support from inside Russia,” according to a White House readout.

In theh call with Cameron, Obama and Great Britain's prime minister agreed Russia had failed to take steps to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine, and spoke of the need to take further action if Russia continued to fail to take those steps.

In Biden’s call to Tusk, the two said Russia should “immediately and publicly call on the separatists to lay down their weapons.” The two also criticized Russia for supplying weapons and training to separatists, including for anti-aircraft weapons.

Obama has struggled to win support from European nations for tougher sanctions on Russia, partly because Western Europe has much closer economic ties to Russia than the United States has.

But he signaled Friday in comments from the White House that he expects the downing of a civilian aircraft carrying 298 people should shift the international community’s focus on the issue.

“This certainly will be a wake up call for Europe and the world that there are consequences to escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine and it is not going to be localized. It is not going to be contained,” Obama said in comments that appeared to be directed in part to Western Europe.

Secretary of State John Kerry also has spoken with key leaders from around the world to discuss a response, and Obama met Friday with Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, the officials who would work most closely on putting together new sanctions against Russia.

Obama said the U.S. was still putting together details on exactly how the Malaysian Airlines flight went down, and he did not accuse Russian militants of firing the missile even as he strongly suggested the U.S. suspects they were responsible.

Obama said Friday that the U.S. believes the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, which President Obama and other U.S. officials said came from territory held by Russian militants.

Sanctions so far have done little to draw Russia back from supporting militants in Ukraine, but it’s possible the downing of the Malaysian flight could be a tipping point. The last round of sanctions were just announced on Wednesday.

Europe is particularly dependent on Russia natural gas, which has left countries in Western Europe more reluctant to impose tough sanctions on Russia. Sanctions are more likely to hurt European firms than U.S. firms, and Europe also fears retaliation by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

One former senior administration official with an expertise in foreign policy predicted that the tragedy could lead to tougher economic sanctions by the Europeans.

“It's hard to see how the Europeans don't find this strikingly close to home,” the former senior administration official said. “And this is the beginning and not the end of what outrage will be expressed. I'm sure the Russians are bracing for that.

“To the extent that the fingerprints go back to Russia, it's horrible for them bilaterally, particularly with Europeans nations,” the former official said. 

The former official also predicted that the U.S. would also be looking at other options on sanctions, saying that "it is likely on the menu of options."

Asked on Friday if downed plane would “harden” European resolve, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it "should be a wakeup call to everybody."

While Psaki stopped shy of saying whether Thursday's events would push the Europeans to take a tougher stance on Russia, she added, "We've been engaged in discussions with the Europeans about sanctions for months now."

"We'll see how this proceeds but those will continue regardless," she said. 

Will Pomeranz, the Deputy Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center agreed that one option is to raise another level of sanctions immediately. 

But with the new round of sanctions imposed this week, Pomeranz predicted that Obama would see what the response is and whether it requires a more forceful response. 

“This crisis itself puts more pressure on Russia,” Pomeranz said, adding that he expected the tragedy to “raise the ante” for European nations as well. 

This story was posted at 7:47 p.m. Friday and was updated at 7:03 a.m.