Russia has continued to supply advanced surface-to-air missile systems to the Ukrainian separatists believed to have shot down a Malaysian airliner earlier this month, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
The recent flow of heavy weaponry across the border to eastern Ukraine has included air defense systems "of sufficient range and equivalent capability of what we saw shoot down the Malaysian airlines flight," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said during a briefing with reporters.
White House and Pentagon officials have previously charged that a Russian Sa-11 surface-to-air missile system fired from territory controlled by the separatists in eastern Ukraine brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH14, which was flying above 30,000 feet, killing all 298 passengers aboard.
Kirby spoke to the Russian military build-up on the border and increased arms shipments to the rebels as President Barack Obama announced that the European allies for the first time had joined in tougher economic sanctions on Russian firms and "cronies" of President Vladimir Putin.
"It is not a new Cold War," Obama said on the South Lawn of the White House, but "it is a reminder that the United States means what it says and we will rally the international community in standing up for the rights and freedom of people around the world."
Obama said that Putin's actions had led to the direct participation of Russian forces in backing the separatists by firing artillery across the border.
"It didn't have to come to this," Obama said. "It doesn't have to be this way. This is a choice that Russia and President Putin in particular has made."
Obama suggested that he was not giving immediate consideration to providing arms to the forces of the Ukrainian government in Kiev to counter the Russian support to the separatists.
The Ukrainian government forces currently "are better armed than the separatists," Obama said. "The issue is how do we prevent bloodshed in eastern Ukraine. We're trying to avoid that. And the main tool that we have to influence Russian behavior at this point is the impact that it's having on its economy."
In the actions announced Tuesday, the U.S. and the European Union joined in targeting Russian banks and other firms, and also in blocking technology exports to Russia's lucrative energy industry.
In a later conference call with reporters, a senior Obama administration official said that Russia's United Shipbuilding Corp. was being added to the list of eight other Russian defense firms that have been targeted for sanctions.
Again absent from the list was Rosoboronexport, Russia's largest arms exporter, which has a $550 million contract with the U.S. to supply Mi-17 helicopters to the Afghan National Security Forces.
At the Pentagon, Kirby said "we're continuing to see Russian military forces gather at the border" and estimated the number of personnel at "north of 10,000."
"These are capable, very ready forces" backed by armor, artillery and transports for quick maneuver, he added. "Support to the separatist movement has to stop."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com