WASHINGTON — The downing of a commercial Boeing 777 in the Ukrainian war zone Thursday inflamed an already volatile international crisis and may bolster President Barack Obama’s efforts to isolate Russia if evidence points to complicity by Moscow’s separatist allies.
Obama was careful not to offer any judgments in his only public comments on the crash. But Vice President Joe Biden said bluntly that the aircraft with 298 people on board was “blown out of the sky” and U.S. intelligence and military analysts were searching for indications of Russian responsibility.
If investigators are able to confirm suspicions that the Malaysia Airlines jet was brought down by a surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Russian rebels who mistook it for a military aircraft, U.S. officials expressed hope that the tragedy will underscore their case that Moscow has been violating Ukrainian sovereignty.
While Obama had imposed new sanctions on Russia just a day before, Europeans refused to adopt similar measures out of fear of jeopardizing their own economic ties.
The Obama administration already has additional sanctions prepared that could be put into effect quickly if Obama so chooses.
“The question is does this finally move the Europeans across that threshold,” said a senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity to speak more candidly. “I don’t know, but how could it not?”
European officials were cautious in their initial reactions, seeking time and information before jumping to possible consequences, and were reluctant to assign blame. But most of the slain passengers were Europeans. The majority of them, 154 in all, were from the Netherlands, where the flight originated, which could increase pressure on European governments to respond.
As it happens, the Netherlands is one of Russia’s largest trading partners and therefore has been among the European nations concerned about the economic effect of harsher measures against Moscow. Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands cut short a holiday in Germany to return home.
“The whole of the Netherlands is in mourning,” he told reporters. “This beautiful summer day has ended in the blackest possible way.”
The presidents of the European Council and European Commission, which are central governing bodies for the continental union, called for “an immediate and thorough investigation” to establish responsibility “as quickly as possible.”
Some analysts said the disaster would invariably lead to a re-evaluation of Europe’s approach to Russia.
“Ultimately this is going to ratchet up pressure within Europe to do what they should have done a long time ago,” said John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “The strength of the opposition to firm steps remains strong, and so it’s not going to go away. It’s just that their position just took a serious hit and it should lead to a stronger set of European sanctions.”
While Obama did not articulate such a position, his former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, gave voice publicly to what administration officials were saying privately.
“There does seem to be some growing awareness that it probably had to be Russian insurgents,” she told interviewer Charlie Rose on PBS. “Europeans have to be the ones to take the lead on this. It was a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over European territory. There should be outrage in European capitals.”
Many in Washington were comparing the situation to the Soviets’ shooting down of a Korean Air Lines passenger jet in 1983 that generated widespread international outrage and for a time left Moscow on the defensive. The Soviets initially denied involvement but later acknowledged responsibility while claiming the plane was on a spy mission.
Obama learned about the plane crash while on a telephone call Thursday morning with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who had initiated the conversation to talk about the sanctions imposed Wednesday and the broader Ukrainian crisis. Near the end of the call, Putin mentioned early reports that were just emerging about a plane going down in Ukraine.
As the day unfolded, and was further complicated by Israel’s ground invasion into Gaza, Obama pushed ahead with his previous schedule. He flew to Delaware to have lunch with a woman who had written a letter to him and delivered a short speech on the need for more infrastructure investment.
But he mentioned the Ukraine crisis briefly at the start of the speech.
“The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why,” Obama said.
From there, he flew to New York for a pair of Democratic fundraisers, but Air Force One was rerouted along a looping flight path to stay in the air long enough for him to call President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine and Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia from the plane to offer condolences and help.
Before the plane made it to New York came news of the Gaza incursion. After landing, Obama called Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the downing of the plane as well as the crisis in Israel and Gaza, then convened a conference call with his national security team for a more extensive update on the investigation into the Malaysian jet. He later called Rutte, the Dutch prime minister.
Biden separately called Poroshenko and reported speaking with him for a half an hour. During a subsequent speech in Detroit, Biden said the plane “apparently has been shot down. Shot down, not an accident. Blown out of the sky.”
While not blaming anyone, Biden alluded to the “possible repercussions” if the separatists were involved.
“Many questions need to be answered,” he said. “And we’ll get those answers and we’ll take action accordingly.”
Lawmakers from both partie condemned the incident.
“This is obviously a game changer and has horrific consequences,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has pressed Obama to take a tougher stance against Putin. “If these are the quote separatists, which are also Russian, Vladimir Putin should be paying a heavy price.”