WASHINGTON — The White House cast the downing of two fighter jets in Ukraine as part of a pattern of Russian-backed separatists using Russian weapons to pose risks to aircraft and further destabilize the conflict in the former Soviet republic.
The Ukrainian jets were downed just 20 miles south of the wreckage from the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane hit by a missile last week, suggesting the separatists have been undeterred by the international outrage over that incident.
The United States has blamed the separatists for firing the missile that led to the deaths of the 298 people aboard and also pointed a finger at Russia for equipping the rebels with the technology to bring down a plane.
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the attack was another indication that the separatists have the capability to bring down aircraft.
“The only aircraft they’re not taking responsibility for is MH-17,” Rhodes said, referring to the Malaysia plane’s flight number.
“But I don’t think anybody believes that. How could anybody believe anything that the separatists or Russia says about this when we see a clear pattern of threatening Ukrainian aircraft in eastern Ukraine?”
Rhodes said the U.S. is weighing additional economic sanctions that could be levied on Russia if it continues to arm the separatists.
He left open the possibility that the U.S. could implement those penalties unilaterally, before the European Union potentially deepens its own sanctions regime against Russia.
While the U.S. has sought to levy sanctions in coordination with the EU, officials have become increasingly frustrated with Europe’s reluctance to approve penalties that could cut deeply into Russia’s key economic sectors.
European leaders fear that their strong trade ties with Russia could make their own economies vulnerable to the fallout of such sanctions.
Rhodes offered no timeline for when the U.S. could levy new penalties. He suggested that the U.S. could deepen sanctions on Russian banks, as well as on energy and defense companies, all sectors the administration hit with penalties the day before the Malaysia plane was shot down.
The U.S. has sought this week to present more specific evidence tying the separatists to the shooting of the passenger jet.
Officials have cited intercepts, satellite photos and social media postings by separatists, some of which have been authenticated by U.S. experts, as evidence that the plane was brought down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired from a separatist-controlled area in eastern Ukraine.
However, officials have offered no direct evidence that the missile came from Russia or that Russia was directly involved in the attack.
“Do we know who pulled the trigger? No, that’s the hardest thing to determine,” Rhodes said. “But when you add up the different pieces of evidence, they’re telling one story here.”