|Barack Obama speaks about the situation in Ukraine at the White House on July 18; (right) Vladimir Putin at an
event outside Moscow on July 18. (AP and AFP)
Washington, July 20: From the start, the telephone call did not go well. Dispensing with pleasantries, President Vladimir Putin launched into an edgy and long-winded complaint about the new American sanctions imposed on Russia the day before.
President Barack Obama, on the phone from the Oval Office on Thursday morning, responded that Russia was arming rebels in Ukraine — citing among other things the anti-aircraft weapons that the United States believed they had been sent. “This is not something we’re making up,” Obama said, according to an American official.
Then, more than halfway through the tense, hour-long call, Putin noted, almost in passing, that he had received a report of an aircraft going down in Ukraine.
Putin was vague about the details, and the conversation moved on. But in that instant, the months-long proxy war between East and West took a devastating turn, one that would shift the ground geopolitically amid the charred wreckage and broken bodies in a Ukrainian wheat field.
In Moscow, the first news reports appeared in early evening as RIA Novosti, a state-run agency, said that the separatists had downed another Ukrainian Antonov-26 military transport plane.
Putin was also in the air above eastern Europe that afternoon, as he was returning from a six-day tour of Latin America aboard his presidential Airbus.
The Russian jet apparently passed near the doomed Malaysian plane, both flying in roughly the same airspace over Warsaw at 33,000 feet some 37 minutes apart, according to an Interfax report. He got on the telephone with Obama shortly after landing.
As soon as it became clear the downed plane was not a military craft but a civilian passenger plane, Russian news media shifted their narrative from a separatist attack to other explanations, including the possibility that Ukraine’s military had shot it down.
The coincidental proximity of Putin’s plane even led to conspiracy theories that whoever destroyed the Malaysia jet was actually trying to target the Russian president.
Putin released a statement 40 minutes after midnight, blaming Ukraine. “Certainly,” he said, “the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy.”
After hanging up with Putin, Obama boarded his Marine One helicopter to fly to Andrews Air Force Base. During the flight, news broke that Ukraine was blaming a Russian-made missile. Dan Pfeiffer, the President’s senior adviser, received an email and told Obama about the allegation.
Once he boarded Air Force One, which was scheduled to take him to Delaware and New York for a policy speech and political fund-raisers, Obama was briefed by his national security aide, Brian McKeon.
By the time the President landed outside Wilmington, it was clear he would need to address the disaster. Speechwriters at the White House emailed a statement to the plane.
Josh Earnest, Obama’s press secretary, gave him a copy and explained that a line about concern for Americans stemmed from reports that as many as 23 were on board.
Earnest told the President that the number came from Ukrainian officials and seemed dubious. But even as Obama went before cameras and made his comments, Vice-President Joseph R. Biden Jr got on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who told him the Ukrainians had intercepted conversations indicating the separatists had shot down the plane.
Obama was briefed by telephone after his speech by Antony J. Blinken, his deputy national security adviser, who told him about the Poroshenko call, and the President decided to call the leader as well as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak from Air Force One.
The flight to New York was so short, however, that the pilots had to fly a long, looping route to give the President enough time to talk Once in New York, he headed to his first fund-raiser and convened a conference call with his staff for an update. He was told most of the dead were from the Netherlands and so arranged to call the Dutch Prime Minister.
The next morning, back at the White House, he was told that one American had been on board, as well as AIDS researchers and activists heading to a conference that he himself had addressed two years earlier. He recognised that he had probably met some of them. “That seemed to kind of rattle him,” an aide said.
As a cloudy morning dawned on Ukraine on Friday, the horror of the crash site was on full display. Small white pieces of cloth dotted the grassy farmland, marking the locations of bodies.
The scene was strangely empty. There was no yellow tape, no investigators poring over the giant metal carcass. Four local rebels carrying hunting rifles wandered through the ruins, poking around the debris more out of curiosity.
On the grass were photographs of a family vacation, a baby announcement postcard and a boarding pass.One of the men, who had never seen a boarding pass, asked what it was. Another picked up an English-language tour book and flipped through it before throwing it back in the heap. “I can’t read it anyway,” he said.