A senior White House official says the United States expects the European Union to impose new, tougher sanctions on Russia for its continued support of separatists in eastern Ukraine, and that the United States also will take additional measures against Moscow.
Tony Blinken, a deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, spoke to reporters in Washington Monday after Obama discussed the situation in eastern Ukraine in a joint telephone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
The White House said the four leaders "agreed on the importance of coordinated sanctions measures on Russia for its continued transfer of arms, equipment, and fighters into eastern Ukraine," including since the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. They also agreed to "press Russia to end its efforts to destabilize the country and instead choose a diplomatic path for resolving the crisis."
Blinken said Russia has used the international attention to the downing of the Malaysian airliner as "a cover and distraction" to increase its deliveries of heavy weaponry, convoys of tanks, multiple rocket launchers, artillery and armored vehicles to the rebels. He added there is evidence Moscow is preparing to deliver "even more powerful multiple rocket launchers."
He said Washington expects the EU to take significant steps this week, including in "key sectors of the Russian economy," and that the United States also will implement "additional measures" in coordination with its European allies.
Russia, meanwhile, said it would not impose tit-for-tat measures or “fall into hysterics” over Western sanctions.
“We can't ignore it. But to fall into hysterics and respond to a blow with a blow is not worthy of a major country,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday.
He added that sanctions could in fact have the opposite effect of making Russia more economically independent.
UN: Downing of MH17 could be 'war crime'
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights says the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in rebel-held eastern Ukraine could be ruled a “war crime."
Navi Pillay said Monday in a statement "the horrendous shooting down" of the aircraft on July 17 was a violation of international law that "may amount to a war crime." She called for a "prompt, thorough, effective, independent and impartial investigation" into the downing of the plane.
A man walks past wreckage at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), Donetsk region, July 26, 2014.
Pillay said every effort will be made to ensure that anyone committing serious violations of international law in the Ukraine conflict, "including war crimes," will be brought to justice, "no matter who they are."
U.S. analysts say the Malaysian airliner was shot down by a surface-to-air missile near the Russian border. U.S. experts have concluded that a Russian SA-11 "Buk" missile downed the aircraft and that ill-trained rebels likely fired the missile, mistaking the aircraft for a Ukrainian military plane. Rebels have dismissed the charge.
U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said Monday he believes there are still SA-11 launchers in Ukraine, potentially in separatist hands.
Ukraine's military says it captured more territory Monday from pro-Russian rebels near the site of a downed Malaysian airliner, and it says flight data shows the jetliner was destroyed by missile shrapnel.
Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko spoke Monday in Kyiv, as security forces pressed their offensive against heavily armed pro-Russian separatists near the Russian border. Lysenko also accused separatists of firing mortar and artillery into the crash site to destroy evidence of their involvement in the July 17 shootdown, which killed all 298 people on board.
Fighting Monday near the crash site forced international investigators to abandon plans to gain access to the area for a second straight day.
British investigators analyzing flight recorder data did not comment on Lysenko's shrapnel claim, and Dutch investigators leading the probe refused to confirm it.
Fighting in the area where the plane crashed has forced a team of international investigators to abandon plans to gain access to the site for a second straight day. The team of Dutch and Australian experts said earlier Monday the group was renewing efforts to reach the site.
UN releases Ukraine report
Pillay’s office has also just released a report on the conflict in Ukraine, saying that to date it has killed 1,129 people, wounded 3,442 and displaced more than 100,000 internally.
The report points to an alarming increase of human rights violations in eastern areas controlled by armed groups. It says such groups continue to abduct, detain, torture and execute people kept as hostages to intimidate and exercise power over the population.
According to Gianni Magazzeni of the U.N. Human Rights Office, the report also notes an increasing “professionalization of the armed groups,” which he said are “led both politically and militarily by citizens of the Russian Federation.”
The report also says the situation in Crimea, which Russia annexed in March, continues to worsen. It says harassment and discrimination against Ukrainian nationals, Crimean Tatars, religious minorities and activists is intensifying.
Ukraine reports battlefield progress
Ukraine says its troops have taken more territory from pro-Russia rebels near the MH17 crash site. Officials say two rebel-held towns have been recaptured and an operation was started to take a village Kyiv says was near the launch site of the surface-to-air missile that downed the plane.
A spokesman for Ukraine's Security and Defense Council, Andriy Lysenko, told a news conference in Kyiv Ukrainian troops were now in the towns of Torez and Shakhtarsk, while fighting was underway for the village of Snizhne - close to the presumed missile launch location.
In rebel-held Donetsk local officials said artillery fire had damaged residential blocks, houses, power lines and a gas pipeline. The city, which before the conflict broke out had a population of nearly one million, has largely become a ghost town since rebels dug in for a stand in the face of advancing Ukrainian troops.
Hagel speaks with Heletey
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke Monday by phone with Valeriy Heletey, asking his Ukrainian counterpart for his assessment of developments in Ukraine, the Pentagon said.
Heletey conveyed that despite steady progress by the Ukrainian military, the situation in eastern Ukraine continues to worsen. The minister attributed the increasing levels of violence, including the downing of MH17, to direct Russian support for the separatists, according to a read-out of the conversation provided by the U.S. Defense Department.
Heletey also expressed his country's interest in additional security assistance from the United States. In response, Hagel assured him that the U.S. government will continue to review all such requests within a broad interagency process.
Maidan – a ‘geopolitical project’
Russia has called Ukraine’s Maidan – site of massive protests which in February toppled the pro-Moscow government of president Viktor Yanukovych – a “geopolitical project” intended to hurt Russia.
“[The project] began developing last year on the Maidan, under a completely made-up pretext, when an incumbent president was denied the right to take additional time to study the effects of an association agreement with the European Union,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a briefing at his ministry in Moscow Monday.
“As the Maidan unfolded it became clear that it was indeed a geopolitical project intended to take control of Ukrainian geopolitical space, and to do so to the detriment of Russia’s interests, as well as the interests of the Russian and Russian-speaking population of Ukraine itself," said Lavrov, adding that the project won’t succeed.
Yanukovych triggered massive street protests against his government last November when he shunned an anticipated economic pact with the EU in favor of a $15 billion bailout by Russia.
Lavrov did not mention any countries by name but Russia has previously accused the U.S. of orchestrating the protests in Ukraine.
Moscow questions US images
Russia’s Defense Ministry on Monday questioned the authenticity of images the United States says are providing proof that the Russian military has fired rockets at Ukrainian troops from Russian territory.
The satellite images were released Sunday by the State Department in a four-page document and tweeted by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt (see below).
“Such materials weren't posted on Twitter coincidentally, since it's impossible to establish their authenticity due to the lack of exact reference to the location and the extremely low resolution,” Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying.
According to the State Department, the images show launch sites and impact craters around Ukrainian military locations.
The satellite images as tweeted by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt:
Lisa Schlein contributed to this report from Geneva, Jeff Seldin from the Pentagon. Some information provided by Reuters.