Russia’s actions in Ukraine ‘gasoline on the fire,’ U.S. diplomat says

People walk amid the debris of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove in eastern Ukraine on July 17, the day the jet was shot down.
People walk amid the debris of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove in eastern Ukraine on July 17, the day the jet was shot down.
(Dmitry Lovetsky / Associated Press)
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The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine had stern words for Russia on Friday, continuing a week in which Washington has toughened its rhetoric against Russian President Vladimir Putin over his nation’s alleged involvement in clashes in eastern Ukraine.

More than a week after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt lamented that rather than “take this crisis as an opportunity to put things back on a diplomatic track, instead what we have seen from the Kremlin is the pouring of gasoline on the fire.”

The Obama administration believes that Russia has increased its supply of munitions to separatist forces since the crash of the jetliner, which the insurgents are widely suspected of shooting down. The State Department said Thursday that it also believes Russia is firing artillery at Ukrainian military positions near the border in eastern Ukraine and has also increased troop movements on the Russian side of the border.

Pyatt’s comments continue the stern talk coming from the White House on Russia, with President Obama saying this week that “now’s the time for Russia and President Putin to pivot away from the strategy that they’ve been taking and get serious about trying to resolve hostilities within Ukraine.”


Pyatt added Friday that “Putin can end this with one phone call.”

Pyatt told reporters that the latest Russian military activity -- which he described as a sign that an escalation had “unambiguously occurred” -- had worrying parallels to the country’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in late winter.

“If we roll back the clock to the end of February or March, we can all remember the Russian denials. ‘There are no Russian troops in Crimea. These aren’t our little green men.’ And history tells us that these little green men were Russian special forces,” Pyatt said.

He cited communications intercepts by Ukraine suggesting contact between Russian military commanders and separatist leaders and said that Washington has validated the intercepts’ authenticity.

“The totality of the picture should be clear to anybody who has their eyes open,” he said.

Some congressional leaders, notably Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), have urged the administration to supply Ukraine with weapons in addition to food and other nonlethal supplies in the country’s fight against the separatists.

The administration does not appear to be considering that option nor any other military action, instead imposing and pushing Europe for harsher sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy.

Putin has denied supplying the separatists with weapons and said he seeks a diplomatic solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

On Friday in Kiev, the British ambassador to Ukraine echoed U.S. comments about the Russian leader.

“There is a cooperative path to take and a noncooperative, destructive path,” said Ambassador Simon Smith as he spoke of sanctions against Moscow. “The logic of [our] policy is if you choose the destructive path and continue down that path, we’ll continue down that path too.”

Pyatt also expressed frustration over the actions of the separatists who control the crash site of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

“I think it’s tragic that the site has not been fully secure and that there is not unimpeded access for investigators,” he said. Pyatt rebuked separatists for not being willing to “demilitarize” the area in the same manner as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said he would.

Dutch investigators have said they continue to be thwarted in their efforts to gain full access to the crash area, and inspectors from many countries remain grounded in Kiev or at home with security concerns over the site. Just a small number of investigators, including some from Malaysia, where the flight was headed, and the Netherlands, where it originated, have been able to reach the zone, and wreckage has laid out unguarded -- or, in some cases, been carted away -- since the July 17 crash.

Follow events in Ukraine on Twitter at @ZeitchikLAT.