Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Russia lays blame on Ukraine

Debris is pictured at the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash, near the village of Grabovo in the Donetsk region on July 18, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Debris is pictured at the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash, near the village of Grabovo in the Donetsk region on July 18, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (NYT) - The Kremlin and its military Friday called the downing of a passenger jet over Ukraine the Ukrainians' responsibility and rejected accusations that Russia was involved, with senior officials demanding a thorough, impartial international investigation.

For weeks now, Moscow has sought to blame Ukrainian military offensives for the violence in the eastern region of the country, even as it has called for peace negotiations. There was no indication that the crash of the Malaysia Airlines jet late Thursday would alter that pattern.

President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly played the role of statesman, calling for a cease-fire while leaving the daily fray over events in Ukraine to his foreign minister or other officials.

That pattern, too, held Friday. "Direct talks must be established between the opposing sides as soon as possible," Putin was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies at a meeting with the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. "All sides to the conflict must swiftly halt fighting and begin peace negotiations. It is with great concern and sadness that we are watching what is happening in eastern Ukraine. It's awful; it's a tragedy."

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared on the main state-run satellite network, Rossiya 24, to deny Russian involvement and to demand an "open, independent" investigation into the downing of the Malaysia Airlines jet. "We shall be prepared to make our contribution, but in our opinion the initiative should be taken by the authorities of the country on the territory of which the tragedy has taken place," Lavrov said.

He dismissed accusations from the Ukrainian government that Russia was responsible. "In the last few months I have not heard practically any truthful statements from Kiev," he said. Lavrov did confirm that negotiations between the separatists and the Kiev government had started so that an international investigation team could reach the crash site.

It is in territory near Donetsk that is controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Lavrov said attempts to reach a truce in the embattled east were now "three or four times more important, taking into account the investigation, which should cover quite a vast territory."

The foreign minister also said Russia would not take the black box flight recorders that are said to be held by the separatist forces, saying the investigation was Ukraine's responsibility. "We want international experts to get to the crash site as soon as possible so that they get the black boxes right away," he said.

Putin called Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, to offer condolences for the Dutch citizens who died in the crash, which killed all 298 people on board the Boeing 777-200, according to a statement on the Kremlin news service. Putin "stressed that this tragedy once again confirms the necessity of the soonest peace settlement of the acute crisis in Ukraine," the Russian statement said.

The Russian president also said a thorough and objective investigation into the circumstances of the air disaster was necessary. His spokesman, Dmitry Petrov, was on vacation and unavailable to answer questions.

Later Friday, Putin attended a ceremony marking the 700th anniversary of one of Russia's most important saints at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, a monastery north of Moscow, as previously scheduled.

He spoke briefly about the historical importance of the Russian Orthodox faith but made no reference in his speech to current events in Ukraine. He was accompanied by the defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu.

Patriarch Kirill I, however, made a passing reference to the current pressure on Russia, after first praising the president for expressing the common sentiments of all Russians. "May God grant that everyone understands Russia, those who do not yet understand it," the patriarch said. "May God grant that everyone understands that no military dangers emanate from Russia, no dangers for anyone."