By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times
Russian President Vladimr Putin on Monday again sidestepped any blame for the last week’s downing of a Malaysian jet and demanded that international teams be ensured safe access to the crash site.
“Everything should be done to ensure (the international experts’) full and absolute safety, and to create humanitarian zones essential for their work,” Putin said in an urgent televised address that also appeared on the Kremlin’s official website. “For its part, Russia will do all it can to transition the conflict in eastern Ukraine from today’s military stage toward the negotiation phase.”
Putin didn’t clarify how Russia plans to achieve that, but again blamed Ukraine’s government for the tragedy.
“I can say with confidence that if on June 28 combat activities in eastern Ukraine had not been resumed, this tragedy most likely would not have happened,” he said. “At the same time, no one has a right to use this tragedy to achieve their narrowly selfish political ends.”
In recent days Putin has drawn international fire for the Kremlin’s alleged inciting and arming of pro-Russia rebels with weapons including sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, one of which was apparently used to down the Malaysian passenger airliner over the Donbass region, killing all 298 aboard.
Putin insisted that officials responsible for the Ukraine situation “should acknowledge their responsibility both before their own people and before the peoples of those countries whose representatives were among the victims of this catastrophe.”
The early morning timing of the address and its somewhat blurred wording indicated that Putin was more than concerned with the situation, which took such an unexpected turn for everybody including the Kremlin, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Russian senior political expert.
“Feeling that every new day brings more understanding to the question of who stands behind the downing of the plane, Putin in a statement close to hysteria in its undertones hurried to state that Russia will never admit anything and will never agree to any findings pointing a finger at the Kremlin,” said Oreshkin, a political scientist with the Academy of Sciences Geography Institute.
“Putin’s message to the world is clear: ‘Whatever you learn and whatever you say, you have no right to blame me for what happened, especially if you use it in your dirty political games.”
The tragedy has narrowed Putin’s room for maneuvering, Oreshkin said.
“Putin is no longer in a position to continue open support for pro-Russia separatists in the region, let alone deploy troops in Ukraine,”, he said. “On the other hand, Putin loses face both with the rebels in Ukraine and his radical supporters in Russia who counted on seeing a new Stalin in him and sincerely believed that he would send Russian troops into Ukraine at some point.”
Some separatist leaders are already openly calling Putin “a traitor to their cause,” Oreshkin said. “Which may explain some of the urgency that must have compelled the Kremlin leader to deliver a sudden statement in the middle of the night.”
Dmitry Orlov, a pro-Kremlin political scientist. said Putin was sending a clear message to Western leaders that Kiev authorities won’t get the flight recorders and that the investigation should be carried out solely by an unbiased international aviation commission.
“Putin has enough fortitude not to succumb to any form of pressure before the end of the investigation,” said Orlov, general director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communication, a Moscow-based think tank. “The urgency of the statement indicates Putin’s extreme concern with the situation and his desire to see the investigation proceeding in an unhindered and most transparent way.”
But Oreshkin said Putin must count on the rebels to remove and hide any evidence linking the Kremlin to the jet downing.
Pro-Russia militants found the flight recorders and were ready to hand them over to an international commission, an official of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said Monday.
“Visually they are in excellent condition with no damage detected,” Sergei Kavtaradze, a member of the formation’s Security Council, said of the black boxes, or flight recorders, in an interview with Interfax news agency. “I have spoken to representatives of the Malaysian side — (who) I hope will get down here quickly. We will hand over ‘the black boxes’ only to international experts.”
Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk said Monday that his country was ready to give the Netherlands the role of investigation coordinator.
“As the side that suffered most, the Netherlands may lead the investigation in close coordination and cooperation with all other parties,” Yatseniuk said at a briefing in Kiev.
In the meantime 277 bodies of crash victims have been found on the site, 251 of which were loaded into train cars, Yatseniuk said. He complained that pro-Russia rebels were preventing the bodies from being sent to the Netherlands.
Staff writer Steve Zeitchik contributed to the story from Kiev.
AFP Photo / Maxim Shipenkov
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