BRUSSELS — The European Union agreed Tuesday to impose new sanctions against officials deemed responsible for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, amid mounting international anger after a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down over rebel-held territory.
European foreign ministers stopped short, at least for now, of more forceful sanctions that would hit full sectors of the Russian economy.
The decision came soon after bodies of those killed in the crash reached Ukrainian government-controlled territory, leaving a war zone en route to the Netherlands after delays and haphazard treatment that put pressure on the Europeans to inflict tougher pressure on Russia.
The crash last week in eastern Ukraine has heightened diplomatic tensions over the conflict in Ukraine and focused anger at Russia, from Washington to EU headquarters in Brussels to Malaysia. But Russian President Vladimir Putin remained combative Tuesday, lashing out at Ukraine’s military Tuesday for trying to dislodge the rebels.
The EU agreed to impose visa bans and asset freezes on more Russian officials, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said. He did not say how many officials were targeted or reveal their names.
He said the ministers also asked the 28-nation bloc’s executive arm to prepare for more sweeping sanctions — including targeting the arms, energy and financial sectors — if Russia fails to back down from destabilizing Ukraine.
“Russia has not done enough to contribute to a de-escalation of the conflict,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.
The crash site itself, in farmland held by the pro-Russian separatists whom the West accuses of shooting down the plane, remained unsecured five days after the disaster — another source of frustration for officials around the world eager to establish what happened.
After a 17-hour journey from the town of Torez in rebel territory, the train carrying the bodies pulled into a station in Kharkiv, a government-controlled city where Ukrainian authorities have set up their crash investigation center. The train gave a low-pitched blast from its horn as the grey corrugated refrigerator cars slowly rolled through weed-choked tracks onto the grounds of a factory where the bodies were being received.
Government spokesman Oleksander Kharchenko said Ukraine “will do our best” to send the bodies to the Netherlands on Tuesday. Of the 298 people who died aboard the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight, 193 were Dutch citizens.
But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte says his government aims to have the first bodies returned on Wednesday. “It is our aim — and at the moment our expectation — that sometime tomorrow the first plane carrying victims will leave for Eindhoven,” he said.
Rutte said that the identification of some bodies will be quick. But he has warned grieving families of victims of Thursday’s crash that the identification of some others could take “weeks or even months.”
In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers were discussing Tuesday what action to take response to the disaster. Europe and the United States have imposed targeted economic sanctions against Russia for supporting Ukraine’s five-month insurgency that began after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by protesters in February.
In Moscow, Putin said Russia would do “everything in its power” to facilitate the investigation including putting pressure on the rebels. But he said that “was not enough” to resolve the situation. During a meeting with Russia’s Security Council, he again criticized Kiev for its military offensive to dislodge the rebels.
Putin again challenged the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government, saying, “people came to power in an armed, anti-constitutional way.”
“Yes, after the coup there were elections, but strangely, for some reason, those who either financed or carried out that coup became leaders of the government,” he said.
Yanukovych was declared removed by vote of parliament after fleeing the country. A special election was held May 25 to replace him, won by candy company owner Petro Poroshenko.
The rebels control a swathe of territory in two eastern provinces, and have battled Ukrainian troops with heavy weapons including tanks and missile launchers that the West says came from Russia. Russia denies supporting the insurgency.
Sanctions so far have focused on individuals instead of entire sectors of Russia’s economy, though the EU was moving already to broaden them before the downing of the plane. British Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday that the jet’s destruction has drastically changed the situation, and that the Russians cannot expect continued access to European markets and capital if they continued to fuel a war against another European country.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said in Brussels on Tuesday that “it’s about bold actions from the European Union, not just about sanctions.”
He insisted that the insurgency is made up of members “of Russian security services, who were trained with Russian money with Russian weapons to destabilize the eastern Ukraine and at the end of the day, the whole Ukraine.”
“If it succeeds, it will be a blow for the whole continent,” he said.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius blamed “terrorists supplied by Moscow” for shooting down the airliner, killing all aboard. He called for an arms embargo, in a direct challenge to France, which is building two warships for the Russian navy.