Putin May Be Key To Malaysian Plane Crash Inspection

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NPR's Arun Rath talks to Wall Street Journal reporter James Marson about Vladimir Putin's response to mounting international anger at Russia following the downing of a civilian plane over Ukraine.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath, sitting in for Rachel Martin. Pressure is mounting on Russia as international inspectors wait to gain full access to the site of last week's Malaysia Airlines crash in eastern Ukraine. World leaders are demanding that President Vladimir Putin use his influence with pro-Russia rebels so they'll allow inspectors in and allow the bodies to be recovered. Wall Street Journal reporter James Marson is following the story in Moscow and joins me on the line. Thanks for speaking with us.

JAMES MARSON: Hi there.

RATH: So a lot of frustration directed at Vladimir Putin but can he actually control these separatists?

MARSON: Well, that's the big question at the moment. Mr. Putin's line so far has been to say, I can't control the rebels. I've got nothing to do with them. The chaos is Ukraine's fault. And the fact that Ukraine restarted the military operation earlier this month has caused the situation where this aircraft can be shot down. Now the situation on the ground is indeed very chaotic.

My colleague in eastern Ukraine this morning said he saw some bodies being loaded onto refrigerated rail cars. It's not clear where they're heading to. The rebels are not providing access to officials at the site. So it's a very chaotic situation.

RATH: There's more talk now in Europe about imposing tougher sanctions on Russia. But how sensitive is Putin to international pressure?

MARSON: Sanctions could potentially have a big impact on Putin's thinking. Putin's popularity depends very much on economic stability, political stability. So far, the Europeans have been a little slower on bringing in sanctions because they have much closer economic ties to Russia. This tragedy, however, could push them to push bring in stronger sanctions.

RATH: And how is this playing out with the Russian public? What do they expect Putin to do?

MARSON: The Russian public, so far, has been fed the propaganda line by Russian television channels, that this shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane was in fact a failed attempt to shoot down Mr. Putin's plane, which was flying over Europe at the same time.

RATH: Implying that that was the Ukrainian military that fired the missile in an attempt to shoot down President Putin's plane.

MARSON: Well, they don't explicitly say that but that would be the implication. This was fed to a newswire, I hear, by an anonymous source but it's been given a lot of play on Russian state television. And the version that, in fact, this was the separatists, is getting very little play at all.

RATH: You wrote in the Wall Street Journal that there are hard-liners in the Kremlin who are pushing Putin to take an even more aggressive stance. How likely do you think it is that things could get worse in terms of the aggression?

MARSON: Well, there are indeed people around Putin who want a tougher course but his strategy so far has been to publicly distance himself from the rebels. But at the same time, according to Ukraine and the U.S., he's been providing fighters, he's providing heavy weapons so the pro-Russia rebels can hold off the Ukraine's military attack.

This strategy seems to have been laid back by the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines. So it seems to be impossible for him to continue this strategy anymore. But that all depends on the European and the U.S. reaction to this in terms of sanctions.

RATH: James Marson is a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He spoke with us from Moscow. James, thank you.

MARSON: Thank you.

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