WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama sternly called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to compel Kremlin-backed separatists to stop hampering the probe at the Ukraine site of a downed passenger jet and allow international investigators unfettered access.
"What exactly are they trying to hide?" Obama said Monday from the South Lawn of the White House.
Obama also warned Putin that he could face additional economic costs if he fails to take steps to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, but officials said new American sanctions were not imminent. Instead, much of the White House's focus was on gaining access to the crash site and shoring up European Union sanctions, which have lagged behind U.S. penalties.
EU foreign ministers planned to discuss the prospect of deeper sanctions during a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday. A European official said the discussions were expected to focus on targeting Russian individuals and businesses, as well as possible arms embargoes.
The official said the downing of the passenger jet last week has shifted the calculus among some European nations that had been reluctant to impose tougher sanctions, including Germany and the Netherlands, which lost more than 190 people in the crash. However, the official said there remained splits in the European coalition, with other countries concerned that deepening sanctions on Russia now could harm efforts to gain access to the crash site.
Both the U.S. and Britain, which has been pushing for aggressive European sanctions, indicated some frustration in particular with France, which is pressing ahead with the sale of warships to Russia. British Prime Minister David Cameron publicly questioned that decision Monday and U.S. officials said they continue to raise the matter in conversations with the French.
While earlier rounds of Western sanctions appear to have had little impact in shifting Putin's calculus, U.S. officials said Monday that Russia risks being pushed into a recession by the penalties. Officials repeatedly have cited data from the International Monetary Fund downgrading Russia's growth outlook to nearly zero this year.
Just one day before Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot out of the sky by a missile, Obama announced broad unilateral U.S. sanctions on some of Russia's biggest banks and weapons firms.
Beyond sanctions, Western allies were weighing whether to revoke Putin's invitation to attend a Group of 20 economic meeting in November. U.S. officials said that decision ultimately rested with the host country of Australia, which lost at least 37 people on the downed flight.
The U.S. and allies took a similar step earlier this year when they boycotted the Group of Eight meeting Putin was scheduled to host in Russia and instead met without him in Brussels.
The U.S. and European officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations by name.
The White House has been seeking to pin responsibility on the pro-Russian separatists for shooting down the Malaysia Airlines plane carrying nearly 300 people. Officials have also pointed a finger at Russia, arguing that it would be all but impossible for the insurgents to operate the sophisticated missile system needed to shoot down a passenger jet without some level of assistance from Russia.
Obama stressed the need for trans-Atlantic unity in responding to the plane incident and Russia's broader actions in Ukraine during a phone call with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, the White House said. In a sign of how the conflict has rattled the region, the White House said the two leaders agreed it was crucial for European members of NATO to boost their defence spending amid efforts to bolster security in central and eastern Europe.
Obama offered no new evidence Monday as to who was responsible for shooting down the plane. But White House spokesman Josh Earnest said a clear picture of what happened in the incident was coming into focus.
"Russian claims to the contrary are getting both more desperate and much harder to believe," Earnest said.
Russia's Defence Ministry said Monday that it saw no evidence a missile was fired and denied involvement in the downing of Flight 17 and suggested the Ukrainian military was at fault.
International investigators still had only limited access to the sprawling fields where the plane fell. The Obama administration appeared unmoved by an announcement from Malaysia on Monday that the separatists were prepared to give independent international investigators "safe access" to the crash site.
"The burden now is 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," Obama said.
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