WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday sternly denounced Russia and the separatists it supports in Ukraine for blocking access to the site where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was brought down last week, declaring that “time is of the essence” to recover bodies and evidence.
Four days after the passenger jet was shot down by what US officials have called a Russian-made and supplied antiaircraft missile, Obama tried to raise the pressure on the Kremlin.
Speaking at the White House, the president said pro-Russia separatists have blocked investigators from the scene, fired their guns in the air, removed physical evidence, and delayed or impeded the collection of the bodies. “What exactly are they trying to hide?” he asked.
The president added that in some cases bodies have been removed from the scene by separatists without due respect. “It’s the kind of behavior that has no place in the community of nations,” Obama said.
At the United Nations, the Security Council on Monday unanimously passed a resolution that “condemns in the strongest terms” the attack that brought down the plane, called for an international investigation with the UN civil aviation agency, and demanded that armed groups at the crash site allow unfettered access.
Russia agreed to support the draft text after intense negotiations that lasted until early Monday morning, in which language of the draft text was tweaked to satisfy the Kremlin’s demands. The phrase “shooting down” was changed to “downing.”
The role of the Ukrainian government was diminished. A paragraph calling for a cessation of hostilities around the crash site was added.
The Russian ambassador, Vitaly I. Churkin, said as he entered the council chamber that the text had been “improved” in order to win over his government’s support.
US officials have said their intelligence shows that the Boeing 777-200 was taken down Thursday by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile supplied by Russia to separatists. Such a weapon could not be used without extensive training and assistance, the officials have said.
The standoff over the crash site has reinforced US suspicions that Russians played a direct role in assisting separatists who fired the missile or perhaps pulled the trigger themselves.
“Our immediate focus is on recovering those who were lost, investigating exactly what happened, and putting forward the facts,” Obama said. “We have to make sure the truth is out, that accountability exists.”
He singled out President Vladimir Putin of Russia as responsible for the chaotic situation at the crash scene and said the Kremlin leader would be held accountable for ensuring that separatists open the site to international investigators.
“He has direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation,” Obama said. “That is the least that they can do.”
Obama, who had imposed a new, tougher round of sanctions on Russia the day before the plane was brought down, held out the prospect of going further now.
“If Russia continues to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and to back these separatists,” he said, then “Russia will only further isolate itself from the international community, and the costs for Russia’s behavior will only continue to increase.”
The challenge for Obama will be persuading the Europeans to go along. Until this point, they have not been willing to adopt measures that go as far as the United States has, wary of antagonizing Russia, which provides about 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas.
EU officials have resisted imposing penalties that would target wide swaths of Russia’s economy.
The question is whether the plane tragedy changes that dynamic — and that may become clearer Tuesday when senior European officials meet to discuss the situation.
Republicans in Washington said Obama needs to do more, not just to bring the Europeans along but unilaterally if necessary.