Controlling the narrative and the isolation of Russia

The downing of a commercial Boeing 777 in the Ukrainian war zone on Thursday inflamed an already volatile international crisis and was meant to bolster President Obama’s efforts to isolate Russia if the narrative points to complicity by Moscow’s separatist allies. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/18/world/europe/tragedy-on-top-of-crisis-may-strengthen-stand-against-russia-in-us-and-europe.html?ref=world&_r=0
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said bluntly that the aircraft with 298 people on board was “blown out of the sky,” and the White House late Thursday issued a statement linking the crash to a crisis “fueled by Russian support for the separatists.”
If investigators are able to confirm suspicions that the Malaysia Airlines jet was brought down by a surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Russian rebels who mistook it for a military aircraft, American officials expressed hope that the tragedy will underscore their case that Moscow has been violating Ukrainian sovereignty. While Mr. Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia just a day before, Europeans refused to adopt measures as stringent out of fear of jeopardizing their own economic ties.
The Obama administration already has additional sanctions prepared that could be put into effect quickly if Mr. Obama so chooses. “The question is does this finally move the Europeans across that threshold,” said a senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity to speak more candidly. “I don’t know, but how could it not?”
European officials were cautious in their initial reactions, seeking time and information before jumping to possible consequences, and were reluctant to assign
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blame. But most of the passengers were Europeans. The majority of them, 154 in all, were from the Netherlands, where the flight originated, which could increase pressure on European governments to respond.
As it happens, the Netherlands is one of Russia’s largest trading partners and therefore has been among the European nations concerned about the economic impact of harsher measures against Moscow. Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands cut short a holiday in Germany to return home. “The whole of the Netherlands is in mourning,” he told reporters. “This beautiful summer day has ended in the blackest possible way.”
The presidents of the European Council and European Commission, which are central governing bodies for the continental union, called for “an immediate and thorough investigation” to establish responsibility “as quickly as possible.”
Some analysts said the disaster would invariably lead to a re-evaluation of Europe’s approach to Russia.
“Ultimately this is going to ratchet up pressure within Europe to do what they should have done a long time ago,” said John E. Herbst, a former American ambassador to Ukraine now at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “The strength of the opposition to firm steps remains strong, and so it’s not going to go away. It’s just that their position just took a serious hit and it should lead to a stronger set of European sanctions.”
While Mr. Obama did not articulate such a position, his former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, gave voice publicly to what administration officials were saying privately.
“There does seem to be some growing awareness that it probably had to be Russian insurgents,” she told Charlie Rose on PBS. “Europeans have to be the ones to take the lead on this. It was a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over European territory. There should be outrage in European capitals.”
Many in Washington were comparing the situation to the Soviets’ shooting down of a Korean Air Lines passenger jet in 1983 that generated widespread international outrage and for a time left Moscow on the defensive. The Soviets initially denied involvement but later acknowledged responsibility while claiming the plane was on a spy mission.
Mr. Obama learned about the plane crash while on a telephone call on Thursday morning with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who had initiated
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the conversation to talk about the sanctions imposed Wednesday and the broader Ukrainian crisis. Near the end of the call, Mr. Putin mentioned early reports that were just emerging about a plane going down in Ukraine.
As the day unfolded, and was further complicated by Israel’s ground invasion into Gaza, Mr. Obama pushed ahead with his previous schedule. He flew to Delaware to have lunch with a woman who had written a letter to him and delivered a short speech on the need for more infrastructure investment.
But he mentioned the Ukraine crisis briefly at the start of the speech. “The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why,” Mr. Obama said.
From there, he flew to New York for a pair of Democratic fund-raisers, but Air Force One was rerouted along a looping flight path to stay in the air long enough for him to call President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine and Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia from the plane to offer condolences and help.
Before the plane made it to New York came news of the Gaza incursion. After landing, Mr. Obama called Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the downing of the plane as well as the crisis in Israel and Gaza, then convened a conference call with his national security team for a more extensive update on the investigation into the Malaysian jet. He later called Mr. Rutte.
Mr. Biden separately called Mr. Poroshenko and reported speaking with him for a half-hour. During a subsequent speech in Detroit, Mr. Biden said the plane “apparently has been shot down. Shot down, not an accident. Blown out of the sky.”
While not blaming anyone, Mr. Biden alluded to the “possible repercussions” if the separatists were involved. “Many questions need to be answered,” he said. “And we’ll get those answers and we’ll take action accordingly.”
Lawmakers from both parties quickly condemned the crash. “This is obviously a game changer and has horrific consequences,” said Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has pressed Mr. Obama to take a tougher stance against Mr. Putin. “If these are the quote separatists, which are also Russian, Vladimir Putin should be paying a heavy price,” he said.
Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, echoed the sentiment in a message he posted on Twitter: “If this plane went down as a consequence of the #Ukraine conflict, then Russia has blood on its hands no matter who fired.”

And this is all made possible because…..

A Ukrainian AN-26 transport plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile while flying at 21,000 feet, an attack that American and Western officials believe was carried out either by Ukrainian separatists allied with Moscow or possibly even a Russian military unit. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/18/world/europe/earlier-downing-of-transport-plane-over-ukraine-foreshadowed-tragedy.html?ref=world
More than half a dozen aircraft had been shot down in Ukraine in recent months, but this attack was different. Before Monday, only aircraft flying at relatively low altitudes — within the range of shoulder-fired weapons — were thought to be vulnerable to ground fire.
For the first time, a surface-to-air missile with greater range had been used, raising questions about whether the rebels have acquired such a devastating capability, and Russia’s role.
As with the Malaysian jet, some rebels claimed credit for Monday’s attack. But Western officials have also been investigating the possibility that the aircraft was downed by the Russian military, launching an SA-11 missile from the Russian side of the border to support the separatists.
One American official, who declined to be identified because he was discussing classified intelligence, said that the Russian military had two surface- to-air missile batteries positioned close to the border but that there was no conclusive evidence that those batteries fired the shot that brought down the Ukrainian plane on Monday.
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This week’s attacks came after a string of earlier incidents, including the downing of several Ukrainian government helicopters and a Ukrainian plane used to monitor the “Open Skies” treaty, which allows unarmed military surveillance flights over countries that have signed it. Those attacks were attributed to Ukrainian separatists, who are believed to have amassed an arsenal of shoulder-fired antiaircraft systems in an effort to neutralize the Ukrainian government’s advantage in the air.
On Thursday, officials in Kiev also said that a Ukrainian SU-25 attack jet was shot down during a dogfight with a Russian plane. American officials said they did not have enough information to say why the plane crashed.
Despite the chaos in the skies over Ukraine, passenger aircraft continued to operate in the region. Only the airspace above Crimea and its surrounding waters was completely closed to aircraft. The Malaysian plane was flying on an approved route — the assumption by international aviation organizations was that civilian jetliners could fly far above the danger. It was flying at 33,000 feet on a busy route known as Airway L980, used by commercial carriers between Asia and northern Europe.
Edward Hunt, a defense consultant at IHS Jane’s, said this was not unusual. “Lots of air corridors around the globe go over unstable areas,” he said.
Kyla Evans, a spokeswoman for Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based agency that coordinates regional air-traffic management, said that the Ukrainian government had closed the route to any civilian air traffic flying below 32,000 feet.
In spite of the lower-elevation prohibition, Airway L980 had been busy with traffic each day flying the allowed higher elevations, the aviation official said. Prominent passenger carriers, including Malaysia Airlines and Air India, had continued to use it. But there had been worrying signs, and many carriers had begun to plan flights that skirted the conflict area.
Mikael Robertsson, a co-founder of FlightRadar24, a live flight-tracker service, said that some 300 to 400 commercial aircraft had flown the airways over eastern Ukraine each day before the war, but that in recent months the traffic had fallen by at least half.
“Some airlines chose to use other routes,” he said.
But even after Monday’s downing of one of its transport planes, the Ukrainian government did not issue a Notice to Airmen, or Notam, closing the airspace, and
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both Eurocontrol and airlines continued to approve flight plans over eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Robertsson called it “a stupid decision to keep it open.”
Russia, meanwhile, had taken steps to warn civilian aircraft not to fly over Russian territory near eastern Ukraine, where some of its own military forces are deployed.
A Russian notice issued Wednesday declared that the airway closings were necessary “due to combat actions on the territory of the Ukraine near the state border with the Russian Federation.”
The closings were effective at midnight Wednesday — just hours before Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 took off. Because they were over Russian territory, these closings did not cover the area in Ukraine where Flight 17 crashed. But the plane was flying toward the closed areas, and it was not clear why the airline or Eurocontrol would have approved its flight plan in the face of such warnings. The United States closed the area to American flights on Thursday night.
Kenneth P. Quinn, the general counsel of the Flight Safety Foundation, said that even if there were a notice to airmen that any of the airspace was closed, a shooting down “would still represent a flagrant violation of international law and an irresponsible attack on international civil aviation, because there are protocols in place to provide warning and precautions prior to shoot-down, whether surface- to-air or air-to-air.”
Ms. Evans, at Eurocontrol, said that since the crash, the airspace in eastern Ukraine, known as the Dnipropetrovsk Flight Information Region, has been closed until further notice. Now, Eurocontrol is rejecting all flight plans proposing to cross the region.
Mr. Hunt noted that many of the rebel antiaircraft systems have had limited ranges, and the Ukrainian and Russian troops that possess longer-range air-defense systems have protocols for using them that reduce the likelihood of firing at clearly civilian targets.
He said the Ukrainian military transport plane that was struck on Monday was distinctly different from the Malaysia Airlines Boeing aircraft. Because of that, he said it would be difficult for a trained air-defense crew to mistake one type of aircraft for the other.

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