| WASHINGTON, July 17
WASHINGTON, July 17 The downing of a Malaysian
airliner over eastern Ukraine could be a turning point for the
Ukraine crisis, if it convinces reluctant Europeans to get
behind tougher "sectoral" sanctions long-sought by U.S.
President Barack Obama.
Although it's unclear exactly who was behind the apparent
ground-launched missile that destroyed the Malaysia Airlines
Boeing 777, U.S. allies who have tried to occupy the
middle ground in the worst crisis in relations between Russia
and the West since the end of the Cold War may now support
bolder action to end the fighting in Ukraine.
"Some people thought Ukraine didn't have anything to do with
them. They are now discovering their error," one senior U.S.
official said, adding that this could shatter the view in some
European capitals that the conflict was largely contained.
Current and former U.S. officials, as well as independent
analysts, say the tragedy would sharpen global attention on
Ukraine's raging separatist conflict and Moscow's role in
fueling it. That, in turn, could be a catalyst for stronger
sanctions that could inflict real damage on Russia's economy.
The European Union's reticence over tougher sanctions
reflects concerns among many of its member states about trade
and industrial ties with Moscow and heavy reliance on Russian
But with more than half of the nearly 300 people killed in
the downing of the plane Dutch citizens, and more than a dozen
more from other EU nations, that could change.
There is also hope in Washington that Russian President
Vladimir Putin, faced with possibly the worst unintended
consequences of the Ukrainian crisis, may experience what one
U.S. official described as a "moment of sanity" and work to stop
the violence in majority Russian-speaking parts of eastern
"This could be a tipping point," said Sam Charap, a former
U.S. State Department official and now senior fellow at the
International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington.
"It could be just what it takes to make the Russians step
back," he said. "This is just what Putin didn't want but it's
the kind of scenario that becomes much more likely when you give
a lot of undertrained and unreliable people sophisticated
Putin could also draw a completely different lesson and
decide that, with U.S.-Russian relations already at a post-Cold
War low, he has little to lose in defying Western pressure and
instead increase support for the rebels, the officials said.
Much would depend on the level of public outrage over the
destruction of the plane, and any evidence of involvement by
Ukraine accused the pro-Moscow militants, aided by Russian
military intelligence officers, of firing a long-range,
Soviet-era SA-11 ground-to-air missile. The separatists have
said they took control of such a missile system last month and
used it to shoot down a Ukrainian military transport plane on
The rebels denied involvement in Thursday's crash and said a
Ukrainian air force jet had brought down the flight.
The United States has led the way on Western sanctions
against Russia, announcing on Wednesday new measures targeting
key institutions including Gazprombank and Rosneft Oil Co, as
well as other energy and defense companies. The European Union
has imposed some sanctions, including new penalties this week,
but its steps have lagged Washington and have been weaker.
"This will undermine the case of those who have been
reluctant," the U.S. official said.
Obama will also be under growing pressure from Capitol Hill
- and from the Ukrainian government - for more military training
and an increase in shipments of advanced arms to Ukraine's
fledgling security forces, something the White House has been
reluctant to offer for fear of escalating the conflict.
The airliner tragedy could also lead to a new push in Europe
to rescind arms embargoes that were implemented in the dying
days of Ukraine's former pro-Russian Ukrainian government that
fell last year, U.S. government sources said.
"There should be serious consequences if we find out that it
was either Russian agents, Russian equipment or Russians
directly that was responsible for the downing of this airliner,"
New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said in a speech
on the Senate floor.
The Netherlands declared a day of national mourning for its
154 dead. Twenty-eight passengers were Malaysian, 27 Australian,
12 Indonesian, nine British, four German, four Belgian, three
Filipino and one Canadian. All 15 crew were Malaysian.
While the downing of the Malaysian plane is shaping up as
defining moment in the crisis, some analysts caution against
overstating its impact on already-dismal U.S.-Russia relations.
"It's a very big deal no matter what," said Matthew
Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center think-tank in
But he said this should not be viewed as a "watershed
moment" like the Soviet Union's downing of a Korean airlines
passenger jet in 1983 at the height of the Cold War.
"There is still a lot of uncertainty about what happened,"
he said. "That means plenty of deniability for Putin even if the
attack is traced back to separatist rebels."
A second U.S. official said Thursday's tragedy "could lead
to a moment of pullback" by the opposing sides in the Ukraine
conflict, paving the way for talks and possibly a compromise.
The international reaction to Thursday's tragedy "could go
two ways," the official said. It could cause countries to
understand the growing danger of the Ukraine conflict, or prompt
them to "put their heads in the sand".
(Additional reporting by Peter Apps and Patricia Zengerle in
Washington; Editing by Jason Szep and Alex Richardson)