Washington builds pressure on Putin ahead of EU meeting

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Washington stoked international outrage Monday over the downing of a Malaysian jetliner, increasing pressure on Moscow to abandon ethnic Russian insurgents believed to have shot the plane down from their separatist enclave in eastern Ukraine.

Russia voted with the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution calling for open access to the crash site and a full and independent investigation into the disaster.

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Separately, the rebels agreed to hand over the aircraft’s black boxes and some bodies from among nearly 300 passengers who were killed. The separatists fighting Ukraine’s government also said they would allow investigators unfettered access to the crash site, nearly 9 miles wide.

The actions came on the eve of a European Union foreign ministers meeting, where the Obama administration hopes diplomats will support tougher sanctions against Russia.

So far, the EU has balked at imposing additional penalties and expressed concern it could rock their own economies. The White House thinks outrage over Flight 17 and reports of drunken and belligerent insurgents tampering with the crash site will galvanize support for tougher sanctions against the Kremlin.

“Patience is wearing thin” with Moscow, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.

“The international community’s collective head is snapped to attention in terms of focusing on the situation,” he added. “We anticipate that the increased pressure will be something that [Russia] President [Vladimir] Putin finds more persuasive.”

President Obama spoke in front of cameras about the crisis for the first time since Friday, saying “the burden is now on Russia” to scale back support of the militants, which it has supplied with arms, reportedly including anti-aircraft missiles.

“Now is the time for President Putin and Russia to pivot away from the strategy that they’ve been taking and get serious about trying to resolve hostilities within Ukraine in a way that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty,” Obama said.

The White House hinted at its willingness to take tougher steps. “Additional sanctions or additional costs remain on the table and will continue to be considered by this administration to focus pressure on the Russians,” Earnest said.

The White House would not give specifics, but lawmakers have suggested several options, including personal sanctions targeting Putin and his courtiers.

“One of things we can do is go after financial sanctions on him that hit Putin personally, hit people close to him, his crony capitalist buddies who have collectively robbed the Russian people from so many billions of dollars,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) told MSNBC.

Earlier this year, The Times of London reported Putin had some $40 billion stashed in Swiss bank accounts that could be subject to new sanctions. The White House was cagey when asked about the possibility of targeting those accounts.

“It would be unwise for me strategically to talk about specific contemplated actions,” Earnest said.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) in an interview with CBS News suggested the world should take “symbolic” actions, including canceling the 2018 World Cup in Russia and banning landing rights to OAO Aeroflot, Russia’s largest airline carrier.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), whom the Kremlin banned from travel to Russia in retaliation for previous U.S. sanctions, said Europe could not afford to stand by in light of the plane downing.

“I think the problem is Europe. … Where is Europe on this?” Moran said Monday in an interview with MSNBC. “The Western powers are going to have to get together and take stronger action.”

There were some signs on Monday that Europe is growing more willing to take tougher steps against Putin.

The British are reportedly urging other Europeans to impose broad sectoral sanctions against Russia’s defense industry.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “time to make our power, influence and resources count” in an op-ed published in The Sunday Times.

“We must turn this moment of outrage into a moment of action,” Cameron wrote.

His comments followed a phone call Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, in which all three leaders agreed the EU should be prepared to intensify penalties. 

“Russia risks becoming a pariah state if it does not behave properly,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Sky TV.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also suggested he might revoke Putin’s invitation to the G-20 meeting in Brisbane later this year. Russia has already been expelled from the G-8 for its involvement in Ukraine.

“Australia is a self-respecting country. We are a self-respecting country. And obviously we want to ensure that visitors to this country have goodwill to this country,” he said.

But so far, the French have resisted calls to cancel the $1.6 billion sale of two helicopter carriers to Russia. The White House has previously said it was “not the right timing for those types of transactions to move forward.”

And despite pressure from Washington, it’s possible European leaders will remain reluctant to run afoul of Putin, and risk spiking energy prices and endangering their already fragile economies. 

In a late-night statement released by the Kremlin on Monday, Putin warned that “no one has the right to use this tragedy to pursue their own political goals.”

“Rather than dividing us, tragedies of this sort should bring people together,” Putin said.