You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Obama Points Finger at Putin, Calls Plane Crash in Ukraine "a Wake-Up Call for Europe"

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

President Obama said Friday that the U.S. will not step up military action in response to the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down Thursday over eastern Ukraine. "We don't see a U.S. military role beyond what we've already been doing," Obama said in a press conference at the White House, underscoring Russia's refusal to stop the flow of fighters and weapons into Ukraine as a cause of the tragedy. "If Mr. Putin makes the decision that they are not going to allow the flow of fighters into Ukraine, across the Ukrainian-Russian border, then it will stop. ... He has the most control over the situation, and so far he has not exercised it."

"This is a wake-up call for Europe," he added, and said the violence in eastern Ukraine "will not be contained." 

Obama confirmed that at least one person on board MH17 was an American citizen, and that up to 100 passengers were AIDS researchers en route to a scientific conference in Melbourne. He called for "credible international investigation" into the plane crash, as well an "immediate ceasefire" in eastern Ukraine. FBI and NTSB investigators are already on their way to the scene to help with the investigation.

Of the 298 people killed on board the Boeing 777, 80 passengers are said to have been children; 181 bodies have been found at the crash site so far, and their remains will be taken to Kharkiv for identification. By nationality, 173 on board were Dutch, 44 Malaysian, and 28 Australian. Others confirmed to have been on board include nine Britons, four Germans, and four Belgians. The nationalities of 18 others remain unknown.

As for who fired the surface-to-air missile that took down the plane, then cruising at around 32,000 feet, it seems increasingly clear that separatists in Donetsk are responsible. U.S. officials suspect that a “Russian-made SA-11 surface-to-air missile system” took down the plane, The New York Times reports, and CNN reported "a preliminary classified U.S. intelligence analysis has concluded that the missile that hit Flight 17 most likely was fired by pro-Russian separatists inside eastern Ukraine," according to an unnamed U.S. defense official. Known as the “BUK” in Russian, the radar-operated missile likely would not have allowed whoever was operating it to distinguish a civilian plane from a military aircraft. Whoever fired the missile probably did not know what they were shooting at.

Recordings of conversations between separatists immediately following the crash suggest as much. The audio, obtained by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and uploaded to YouTube, captures one separatist saying, “We have just shot down a plane,” and another saying, “In short, it was 100 percent a passenger [civilian] aircraft... Holy shit! The debris fell right into the yards [of homes].”

Regarding how the rebels would have received the missile that took down the plane, it turns out that although separatist forces did capture several BUKs when they took over a Ukrainian air defense base in June, those missiles were unusable, the Kyiv Post’s Katya Gorchinskaya reports. The missile used against MH17 was brought to Donetsk from Russia in the early hours yesterday, according to the same intelligence: the “SBU's counter-intelligence department receive[d] information that Russian Federation passed a BUK, complete with a team, to the terrorist groups in Ukraine. It was transferred over the border close to the town of Sukhodolsk at 1 a.m.” The SBU has said the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics are responsible; the separatists have as yet denied involvement. 

In a public address following the crash, President Petro Poroshenko told Ukrainians, “Today's tragedy proves again that terrorism is not a local, but a global issue. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is not only our problem, but a threat to the European and global security. Addressing this threat requires a unified global response.” Poroshenko announced the formation of an international investigation team consisting of Ukrainian, Malaysian, and Dutch representatives. “Shooting down a civilian aircraft is an act of international terrorism, targeted against the entire world. This is a wake-up call for the whole world. We expect for an adequate response from the international community.” The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting on the situation in Ukraine Friday morning. "Since beginning of crisis Ukrainian air defenses have not fired a single missile, despite alleged violations of airspace by Russian planes," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power tweeted after the meeting. 

Russia was quick to blame Ukraine for the crash. “I would like to note that this tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in that country, or in any case, if hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine,” Putin told advisers, according to TIME. The Russian Defense Ministry also said it detected the activity of Ukrainian BUK system near the crash site. The Russian president called for the resumption of a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and for the talks between the Ukrainian government and separatist republics—which is to say that the crash does not appear to have changed Russia’s approach to the conflict at all. The news hardly made the front pages in Russia, where at one point a rumor circulated that whoever shot the missile thought they were aiming for Vladimir Putin's private plane, Shaun Walker reports

The one hope is that the tragic event could lead to the end of fighting in the east. “The tragic and sudden loss of so many innocent lives should put a final point to the armed conflict,” Dmitry Trenin writes in The Guardian. “But it may still put the international conflict over Ukraine on a much higher and more dangerous level. The choice is still to be made, but the time is running out fast.”

“[W]hen the histories are written, this will be deemed the day the insurgency lost. Or at least began to lose,” Mark Galeotti argues. “Kyiv’s determination to defeat the rebels will not only be strengthened, it is likely to be blessed by the West.”

As The New Republic's Julia Ioffe writes, the crash of MH17 is undoubtedly a game-changer in the Ukraine crisis, but it’s as yet unclear exactly how. “This also seems to prove that Russia has lost control of the rebels, who have been complaining for some time of being abandoned by President Vladimir Putin. There is no way that, a day after criticizing the recklessness of American foreign policy, his military shoots down a passenger plane. Rather, it seems that the rebels made a mistake that paints Putin into a corner. Putin hates corners, and when he's backed into one, he tends to lash out. He especially hates to do or say what is expected of him, and to give in to outside pressure. ... The one thing we know now is that this conflict is now officially out of control.”