Armed pro-Russian separatists stand at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region. Photo by Reuters
The downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine
could be a turning point for the Ukraine crisis, if it
convinces reluctant Europeans to get behind tougher
"sectoral" sanctions long-sought by US President Barack
Although it's unclear exactly who was behind the apparent
ground-launched missile that destroyed the Malaysia Airlines
Boeing 777, US allies who have tried to occupy the middle
ground in the worst crisis in relations between Russia and
the West since the end of the Cold War may now support bolder
action to end the fighting in Ukraine.
"Some people thought Ukraine didn't have anything to do with
them. They are now discovering their error," one senior US
official said, adding that this could shatter the view in
some European capitals that the conflict was largely
Current and former US officials, as well as independent
analysts, say the tragedy would sharpen global attention on
Ukraine's raging separatist conflict and Moscow's role in
fueling it. That, in turn, could be a catalyst for stronger
sanctions that could inflict real damage on Russia's economy.
The European Union's reticence over tougher sanctions
reflects concerns among many of its member states about trade
and industrial ties with Moscow and heavy reliance on Russian
But with more than half of the nearly 300 people killed in
the downing of the plane Dutch citizens, and more than a
dozen more from other EU nations, that could change.
There is also hope in Washington that Russian President
Vladimir Putin, faced with possibly the worst unintended
consequences of the Ukrainian crisis, may experience what one
US official described as a "moment of sanity" and work to
stop the violence in majority Russian-speaking parts of
"This could be a tipping point," said Sam Charap, a former US
State Department official and now senior fellow at the
International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington.
"It could be just what it takes to make the Russians step
back," he said. "This is just what Putin didn't want but it's
the kind of scenario that becomes much more likely when you
give a lot of undertrained and unreliable people
Putin could also draw a completely different lesson and
decide that, with US-Russian relations already at a post-Cold
War low, he has little to lose in defying Western pressure
and instead increase support for the rebels, the officials
Much would depend on the level of public outrage over the
destruction of the plane, and any evidence of involvement by
Ukraine accused the pro-Moscow militants, aided by Russian
military intelligence officers, of firing a long-range,
Soviet-era SA-11 ground-to-air missile. The separatists have
said they took control of such a missile system last month
and used it to shoot down a Ukrainian military transport
plane on Monday.
The rebels denied involvement in Thursday's crash and said a
Ukrainian air force jet had brought down the flight.
The United States has led the way on Western sanctions
against Russia, announcing on Wednesday new measures
targeting key institutions including Gazprombank and Rosneft
Oil Co, as well as other energy and defense companies. The
European Union has imposed some sanctions, including new
penalties this week, but its steps have lagged Washington and
have been weaker.
"This will undermine the case of those who have been
reluctant," the US official said.
Obama will also be under growing pressure from Capitol Hill -
and from the Ukrainian government - for more military
training and an increase in shipments of advanced arms to
Ukraine's fledgling security forces, something the White
House has been reluctant to offer for fear of escalating the
The airliner tragedy could also lead to a new push in Europe
to rescind arms embargoes that were implemented in the dying
days of Ukraine's former pro-Russian Ukrainian government
that fell last year, US government sources said.
"There should be serious consequences if we find out that it
was either Russian agents, Russian equipment or Russians
directly that was responsible for the downing of this
airliner," New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said
in a speech on the Senate floor.
The Netherlands declared a day of national mourning for its
154 dead. Twenty-eight passengers were Malaysian, 27
Australian, 12 Indonesian, nine British, four German, four
Belgian, three Filipino and one Canadian. All 15 crew were
While the downing of the Malaysian plane is shaping up as
defining moment in the crisis, some analysts caution against
overstating its impact on already-dismal US-Russia relations.
"It's a very big deal no matter what," said Matthew Rojansky,
a Russia expert at the Wilson Center think-tank in
But he said this should not be viewed as a "watershed moment"
like the Soviet Union's downing of a Korean airlines
passenger jet in 1983 at the height of the Cold War.
"There is still a lot of uncertainty about what happened," he
said. "That means plenty of deniability for Putin even if the
attack is traced back to separatist rebels."
A second US official said Thursday's tragedy "could lead to a
moment of pullback" by the opposing sides in the Ukraine
conflict, paving the way for talks and possibly a compromise.
The international reaction to Thursday's tragedy "could go
two ways," the official said. It could cause countries to
understand the growing danger of the Ukraine conflict, or
prompt them to "put their heads in the sand".