President Obama on Friday leaves the podium after speaking to reporters about the ongoing situation in Ukraine.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

President Obama on Friday leaves the podium after speaking to reporters about the ongoing situation in Ukraine.

Obama: No Expanded U.S. Military Role in Ukraine

A consensus began to form Friday among U.S. and international officials that a surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Russian separatists brought down a Malaysia Airlines flight on Thursday, killing all 298 passengers. But as questions emerge over what the U.S. response will be, President Barack Obama said he does not see an expanded U.S. military role —emphasizing instead that Europe take greater responsibility for its own security.

“We don’t see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing in working with our NATO partners and some of the Baltic states, giving them reassurances that we are prepared to do whatever is required to meet our alliance obligations,” Obama said at a White House briefing Friday.

This certainly will be a wake-up call for Europe and the world that there are consequences to an escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine, that it is not going to be localized, it is not going to be contained.” 

While cautioning against getting ahead of the international investigation, Obama did not rule out even stronger sanctions against Russia, which the Pentagon says has supplied the separatists with equipment sophisticated enough to have brought down the aircraft. “Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine,” Obama said. “We know that these separatists have received a steady flow of support from Russia. This includes arms and training. It includes heavy weapons. And it includes anti-aircraft weapons.”

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby confirmed Friday that initial investigations concluded a Russian-made SA-11 missile system most likely brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. “It’s a sophisticated piece of technology, and it strains credulity to think that it could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance,” he said.

Kirby said that the number of Russian troops amassed on the Ukraine border—10,000 to 12,000—has not changed significantly, but they are currently positioned closer to the border than prior, “and they’re very ready.”

Beyond condemning Russia’s responsibility in escalating the conflict with Ukraine, Obama critics and U.S. allies alike have called for more decisive action from the U.S. They have hit the Obama administration for drawing down U.S. forces in Europe, a region that has taken a backseat to the pivot to Asia, renewed conflicts in the Middle East and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. This pressure has only ramped up in the wake of the airline disaster.

“We are also responsible because when they begged us—the Ukrainians begged us for defensive weapons, we sent the [Meals Ready to Eat]. It’s possible that they could’ve taken over eastern Ukraine if they’d had the weapons with which to do so,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Friday, calling the non-lethal approach to helping Ukraine “shameful.”

“The president has been clear from the outset—there’s not going to be a U.S. military solution to the crisis in Ukraine,” Kirby said. “There is no effort, no plan, no intention to have a U.S. military solution.”

Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, is constantly reviewing the U.S. military posture in Europe and looking for opportunities to bolster support for European allies, Kirby said. Yet, while the Ukrainians have requested U.S. military assistance for months—both lethal and non-lethal—the Pentagon’s focus remains on the non-lethal.

While the Russians are providing personnel, training and arms, including heavy weapons and equipment ranging from anti-aircraft weapons to tanks in a “steady and concreted campaign to continue to source and advise the separatists,” Kirby said recent deliveries from the U.S. military to Ukraine include items such as radios, body armor, sleeping mats, barbed wire and alarm systems, with night vision goggles expected soon. He added that the president has authorized $33 million in aid, but much of it has been caught up in the procurement process.

Obama’s most recent Overseas Contingency Operations request for fiscal year 2015, which has met early opposition in Congress, includes $1 billion for the “European Reassurance Initiative.” The ERI, with $925 million allocated for the Defense Department, was intended to reassure America’s European partners in the aftermath of Russia seizing Crimea, and introduced long before the plane crash put renewed focus on the security situation. 

Obama also warned that evidence at the crash site must not be tampered with. Early unconfirmed reports indicated that separatists may have turned over the plane’s black boxes to officials in Moscow. He also called for an immediate ceasefire between Russia, the pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine.

In an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York on Friday, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power said the attack “occurred in the context of a crisis and has been fueled by Russian support for separatists—through arms, weapons, and training—and by the Russian failure to follow through on its commitments.”

After initially blaming the plane crash on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a ceasefire Friday between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces to allow for negotiations. He said he was in contact with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who called the attack a “terrorist act.”

Direct talks between the opposing sides must be established as soon as possible. All sides in the conflict must swiftly halt fighting and begin peace negotiations,” Putin said, according to Reuters. “It is with great concern and sadness that we are watching what is happening in eastern Ukraine. It’s awful, it’s a tragedy.”

“We are horrified by the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “There are no words adequate to express our condolences to the families of the nearly 300 victims.” Most of the victims were from the Netherlands. Obama said there was one American on board.

Power underscored the significance of the lives lost, saying that the number of victims relative to the Netherlands’ total population is the same proportion as the 9/11 attacks.

“This war can be ended,” Power said before the U.N. “Russia can end this war. Russia must end this war.”

Ben Watson contributed to this report.

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