Obama on Ukraine’s Pro-Russia Separatists: ‘What Are They Trying to Hide?’

“We have to make sure that the truth is out,” the president said.

Armed pro-Russia separatists stand guard at the train station on July 21, 2014 as intense shelling rocked the area, in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
National Journal
Matt Berman and Brian Resnick
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Matt Berman and Brian Resnick
July 21, 2014, 7:23 a.m.

Echo­ing frus­tra­tions felt across the world, Pres­id­ent Obama called for “im­me­di­ate and full ac­cess to the crash site” of Malay­si­an Air­lines flight 17 from the White House Monday. “We have to make sure that the truth is out,” he said.

Obama: “The bur­den [is] now on Rus­sia to in­sist that the sep­ar­at­ists stop tam­per­ing with the evid­ence.”

Four days after the crash, the bod­ies of vic­tims have not left the coun­try. Ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press, pro-Rus­si­an rebels in Ukraine have seized MH 17’s black boxes, and re­main in con­trol of the re­covered bod­ies from the crash. The fear is that the pro-Rus­si­an rebels have tampered with the evid­ence. For now, the bod­ies re­main in re­fri­ger­ated freight cars, and “will go nowhere un­til ex­perts ar­rive,” Don­etsk rebel lead­er Al­ex­an­der Borodai as­sured the AP. On Monday, Dutch forensics ex­perts were gran­ted ac­cess to the crash site. (Up­date 12:09 pm: Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, the train has left the area, though its des­tin­a­tion has yet to be con­firmed. Ac­cord­ing to Re­u­ters, the plane’s black boxes will be handed over to Malay­si­an au­thor­it­ies later Monday.)

“The Rus­si­an backed sep­ar­at­ists who con­trol the area con­tin­ue to block the in­vest­ig­a­tion,” Obama said. “They’ve re­peatedly pre­ven­ted in­ter­na­tion­al in­vest­ig­at­ors from gain­ing full ac­cess to the wreck­age. As in­vest­ig­at­ors ap­proached, they fired their weapons in­to the air. The sep­ar­at­ists are re­mov­ing evid­ence from the crash site. All of which begs the ques­tion: What are they try­ing to hide?”

Obama joined in the grow­ing chor­us of world lead­ers de­mand­ing great­er ac­count­ab­il­ity in the in­vest­ig­a­tion.

“This is still an ab­so­lutely sham­bol­ic situ­ation,” Aus­trali­an Prime Min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott said Monday. “It does look more like a garden clean-up than a forensic in­vest­ig­a­tion.” Ac­cord­ing to USA Todaythe Dutch in­vest­ig­at­ors have been prom­ised the train would move from the area, but still do not know a time frame. What’s worse is that, ac­cord­ing to AP re­port­ers, the train’s re­fri­ger­a­tion sys­tems suffered a power out­age overnight.

Obama had dir­ect words for Vladi­mir Putin on Monday:

Pres­id­ent Putin says that he sup­ports a full and fair in­vest­ig­a­tion. And I ap­pre­ci­ate those words, but they have to be sup­por­ted by ac­tions. The bur­den [is] now on Rus­sia to in­sist that the sep­ar­at­ists stop tam­per­ing with the evid­ence, grant in­vest­ig­at­ors who are already on the ground im­me­di­ate, full, and un­im­peded ac­cess to the crash site.

“Over the last sev­er­al days, our hearts have been ab­so­lutely broken as we’ve learned more about the ex­traordin­ary and beau­ti­ful lives that were lost,” Obama said. “Our im­me­di­ate fo­cus is on re­cov­er­ing those who were lost.”

The United States is ratchet­ing up pres­sure on Rus­sia over the Malay­sia Air­lines crash, which was downed in east­ern Ukraine near the Rus­si­an bor­der last Thursday. On Sunday, Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry called the fight over the crash site “a fun­da­ment­al mo­ment of truth for Rus­sia” and said that U.S. in­tel­li­gence “knows to a cer­tainty” that a “ma­jor con­voy” in­clud­ing tanks and ar­til­lery crossed from Rus­sia to pro-Rus­si­an sep­ar­at­ists in the last month. “What we have is a lot of evid­ence that points in the dir­ec­tion that raises very, very ser­i­ous ques­tions,” Kerry said on CBS’ Face the Na­tion.

The White House, mean­while, is hop­ing that Europe will step up its pres­sure on Rus­sia. And there are early signs that Europe may take ac­tion.

European lead­ers, too, are in­tensi­fy­ing their lan­guage against Rus­si­an ac­tions. Ac­cord­ing to the BBC, UK Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on, French pres­id­ent Fran­cois Hol­lande, and Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel have spoken and “agreed that the EU must re­con­sider its ap­proach to Rus­sia and that for­eign min­is­ters should be ready to im­pose fur­ther sanc­tions on Rus­sia when they meet on Tues­day,” as a Down­ing Street readout of the call states.

Camer­on has also said he hasn’t ruled out freez­ing as­sets of in­flu­en­tial Rus­si­ans, in­clud­ing mem­bers of the Rus­si­an par­lia­ment. “They have ac­ted to vote again and again to ac­cept this il­leg­al ref­er­en­dum to an­nex the Crimea to Rus­sia,” Camer­on said at a Monday press con­fer­ence. “They are part of the prob­lem, they are part of the cause of this so they should be tar­geted.”

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