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Plane crash could be Ukraine game changer

Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors speak with a pro-Russian separatist (2nd L) at the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region July 18, 2014. About 30 observers and experts from the OSCE have arrived at the site in eastern Ukraine where the Malaysian airliner flight MH17 crashed, a spokesman said. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

PARIS: The apparent downing of a Malaysian passenger jet and the loss of nearly 300 lives could be a game changer in the Ukraine crisis, piling pressure on key players, Russia foremost.

The shock tragedy, which President Barack Obama described as a "wake-up call" for Europe on Russia, has brought painful proximity to a conflict which for many was until Thursday a faraway and localised standoff.

"After the crash of the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight in the region of Donbass, the conflict will probably appear less distant to the people of Europe," said German analyst Holger Schmieding.

The crash claimed the lives of 298 people, including nearly 100 Dutch nationals, renowned AIDS researchers en route to an international conference, and European and Asian holidaymakers and civilians with no relationship to Ukraine or Russia.

Obama said the plane was downed by a surface-to-air missile shot from territory held by pro-Russian separatists.

Analysts say it has forced Europeans to see the Ukraine conflict as a threat to the greater region -- and that they could ratchet up pressure on Moscow.

"Eastern Ukraine has become a cancer as far as European security is concerned," said Thomas Gomart of the French Institute of International Relations.

Now Western states are forced to realise that "what's happening in eastern Ukraine is a kind of war and no longer just a local conflict," said Camille Grand, the head of Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.

Confirmation of the missile hypothesis "will harden relations between the West and the Russians even more," said Grand, adding: "The separatists cannot arm themselves alone."

Since the start of the Ukraine crisis four months ago, US, Europeans and Ukrainian authorities have accused Moscow of providing the rebels with arms and materiel.

- Specter of sanctions -

Lack of tangible action from Russia, says Chris Weafer of the economic consultancy group Macro Advisory in Moscow, could push the West to bring Stage 3 sanctions -- which could affect core economic relations.

These include the financial activities of Russian oligarchs in London's financial markets, a Mistral warship deal between France and Russia worth 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) and substantial investment by German firms in Russia.

"We have previously assumed that Stage 3 sanctions, especially from the EU, were unlikely and nothing we have heard from the US or EU earlier this week changes that," Weafer said.

"But the Malaysian Airlines tragedy is a potential game changer. Either the event will push Russia towards greater isolationism as a response to the broadly based global criticism... or it will mark some sort of end, or the start of the end, of the most dangerous phase in the conflict in eastern Ukraine," he said.

Others say this will also lead to increased pressure on Ukraine's new President Petro Poroshenko who is trying to retake the east from the hands of the separatists.

Many are hoping that this will push both sides towards a meaningful dialogue.

"It is simply impossible to know what Russian President Vladimir Putin's long-term intentions are toward eastern Ukraine," said the Carnegie Europe think-tank in a blog.

"If, as many fear, Putin intends to spread instability and provoke his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, into going on the offensive in the region, then the casualties and refugees will increase. The losers will be many."

It said the "only glimmer of hope from the terrible plane crash is that it just might be a catalyst for serious negotiations."

In Kiev, independent political analyst Volodymy Fessenko said the disaster could actually be counter-productive as "it will impact on public opinion in Ukraine and make any negotiations with the separatists impossible in the future."

 

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Summary

The apparent downing of a Malaysian passenger jet and the loss of nearly 300 lives could be a game changer in the Ukraine crisis, piling pressure on key players, Russia foremost.

The crash claimed the lives of 298 people, including nearly 100 Dutch nationals, renowned AIDS researchers en route to an international conference, and European and Asian holidaymakers and civilians with no relationship to Ukraine or Russia.

Analysts say it has forced Europeans to see the Ukraine conflict as a threat to the greater region -- and that they could ratchet up pressure on Moscow.

These include the financial activities of Russian oligarchs in London's financial markets, a Mistral warship deal between France and Russia worth 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) and substantial investment by German firms in Russia.


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