EU leaders increase pressure on Russia over MH17

Damon WAKE
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over a rebel-held area of eastern Ukraine in July 2014 (AFP Photo/Alexander KHUDOTEPLY)

The EU piled fresh pressure on Russia on Thursday, extending punishing economic sanctions and demanding Moscow cooperate with a Dutch probe into the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 that led to charges against four men.

The bloc's 28 leaders also served the Kremlin with a tough warning over its move to make it easier for Ukrainians living in breakaway regions of their country's east to obtain a Russian passport.

International investigators on Wednesday charged three Russians and a Ukrainian with murder over the 2014 catastrophe, in which 298 people were killed. The trial is due to start in the Netherlands in March next year.

At a summit in Brussels, EU leaders welcomed the criminal charges over the downing of the plane, which was hit by a missile while over part of eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian rebels as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

"The European Council reiterates its full support for all efforts to establish truth, justice and accountability for the victims and their next of kin," the leaders said in their formal summit conclusions.

"(The Council) calls on Russia to cooperate fully with the ongoing investigation, and expresses its full confidence in the independence and professionalism of the legal procedures that lie ahead."

The call comes after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted Moscow must ensure those charged over the incident face justice.

- Sanctions extended -

The Dutch-led inquiry team said international arrest warrants had been issued for Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, all of whom are suspected of roles in the separatist self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.

The suspects are likely to be tried in absentia since neither Russia nor Ukraine extradites their nationals. The Kremlin has denounced what it called "absolutely unfounded accusations" against the men, all of whom have military and intelligence links.

Prosecutors say the four were to be held responsible for bringing the BUK surface-to-air missile system that shot the plane down from Russia into eastern Ukraine "even though they have not pushed the button themselves".

Ties between the EU and Russia plunged into the deep freeze over the war in eastern Ukraine -- which rumbles on with a death toll of some 13,000 -- and the downing of the MH17.

Thursday's summit saw EU chiefs extend economic sanctions targeting whole sectors of the Russian economy, including its valuable oil and gas industry, until the end of 2019.

The sanctions over Russia's role in the Ukraine conflict were first imposed after MH17 was shot down and have been renewed every six months ever since.

An EU source said the leaders assented swiftly with "not much discussion", though some countries including Poland suggested the extension should be doubled to 12 months.

Separately, the EU extended by a year a different batch of sanctions imposed over Russia's 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

The measures prohibit certain exports and imports from Crimea, and ban EU-based companies from investment and tourism services in the strategic Black Sea peninsula.

The summit also voiced the "utmost concern" over Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to fast-track Russian citizenship for Ukrainians living in areas controlled by Kremlin-backed rebels and warn the EU may not recognise their travel documents.

"The European Council will continue to monitor the situation in eastern Ukraine and stands ready to consider further options, including non-recognition of Russian passports issued in contradiction to the Minsk agreements," the summit conclusions said.