(Adds Obama calls to Merkel, Cameron and Abbott; no reason to
doubt audiotape, paragraphs 3 and 5)
By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, July 18 President Barack Obama said
on Friday the downing of a Malaysian jetliner in a Ukrainian
region controlled by Russian-backed separatists should be a
"wake-up call" for the West in its drive to hold Moscow
accountable for a crisis that appears to be at a turning point.
While stopping short of blaming Russia for Thursday's crash
of Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17, in which 298 people died,
Obama accused Russia of failing to stop the violence that made
it possible to shoot down the plane. The United States has said
the jetliner was hit by a surface-to-air missile fired from
A senior U.S. official said there was increasing confidence
that the missile was fired by separatists and that there was no
reason to doubt the validity of a widely circulated audiotape in
which voices identified as separatists discussed the downing of
"This certainly will be a wake-up call for Europe and the
world that there are consequences to an escalating conflict in
eastern Ukraine; that it is not going to be localized, it is not
going to be contained," Obama told reporters.
Obama spoke by phone later with German Chancellor Angela
Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Australian
Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The White House said they discussed
Ukraine and the downed jet and the need for an unimpeded
international investigation into what happened.
Increasing international demands for an investigation into
the crash present Obama with the opportunity, at least
temporarily, to counter the perception that his presidency's
global influence is eroding and to exert leadership at a time
when his domestic and foreign policy initiatives appear to be
Television broadcasts of pro-Russian rebels sifting through
the remains of the Boeing 777-200 divert attention from a crisis
in the United States involving child migrants on the southern
U.S. border and crises abroad including Israel's ground assault
in Gaza and Islamist gains in Iraq.
Under siege by critics who pan his global approach as
ineffective, Obama faces a test of whether he can whip up enough
international support to help defuse one of the biggest crises
of his presidency: the worst collapse in East-West relations
since the end of the Cold War.
Obama toughened his message to Russian President Vladimir
Putin, a day after Putin complained in a phone call to Obama
about new U.S. sanctions directed in part at Russia's energy
In an example of how Obama and Putin are still able to
communicate with each other despite months of bitter
differences, it was revealed on Thursday that Obama learned of
the airline disaster from Putin during their phone call.
Now, Obama's goal is to tighten the clamps on Russia and
force Putin to back down, something the Russian president has
refused to do since the Ukraine crisis erupted earlier this
Obama must also convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel and
other European leaders to take a more aggressive posture against
Russia's activities in Ukraine in the wake of the Malaysia Air
European leaders, sensitive to the damage Russia could
inflict on their economies by, for example, cutting off natural
gas supplies, have imposed sanctions that are less ambitious
than the United States would like.
Obama called the crash a "global tragedy."
Putting pressure on Moscow, Obama told the news conference,
"The violence that's taking place there is facilitated in large
part because of Russian support. If Mr. Putin makes a decision
that we are not going to allow heavy armaments and the flow of
fighters into Ukraine across the Ukrainian-Russian border, then
it will stop.
"He has the most control over that situation," Obama said of
Putin. "And so far, at least, he has not exercised it."
It was a sharp contrast to Obama's "reset" of relations with
Moscow in his first term, once seen as a big achievement but
criticized by Republicans who called Obama naive for trusting
Obama's display of resolve on Friday was far sharper than
his initial reaction on Thursday when, as videos of smoke from
the crash and the debris field were shown on U.S. television, he
said it looked like it might be a terrible tragedy.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power issued
an indictment of Moscow at a U.N. Security Council meeting,
saying Russia has in the last few weeks increased the number of
tanks, armored vehicles, and rocket launchers in southwest
Russia. More advanced air defense systems have also arrived.
"This war can be ended. Russia can end this war. Russia must
end this war," Power said.
Foreign policy issues have regularly leapt to the top of
Obama's agenda in spite of his attempts to focus on U.S.
domestic policy in the run-up to congressional elections in
November that he hopes will thwart Republican efforts to take
over the U.S. Senate. Ukraine has topped the list for much of
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Emily Stephenson;
Editing by Jason Szep, Toni Reinhold and Tom Brown)