Last updated: July 22, 2014 7:36 am

UK urges tougher EU sanctions on Russia

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Europe’s foreign ministers will face intense pressure to enforce tougher sanctions against Russia on Tuesday, with a UK-led group of hardliners insisting the downing of MH17 has changed the calculus for the EU’s relationship with the Kremlin.

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday handed over MH17’s flight data and voice recorders to Malaysian officials, and allowed a train carrying some 200 body bags to leave the region of the crash site.

The bodies are to be taken to Donetsk, which is in rebel hands, and then Kharkiv, which is under Ukraine government control, from where they will be flown to the Netherlands, according to Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister.

The Netherlands is co-ordinating the investigation because 193 of the 298 people on board were its citizens.

On Monday night the UN Security Council, including Russia, unanimously approved an Australian resolution calling for unrestricted access for investigators to the crash site. It called for an international investigation into the fate of MH17 and an end to all military activity around the site.

The UK’s ambassador to the UN, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, said the resolution spelt out the world’s demands for an end to the “inexcusable” treatment of the victims’ by insurgents controlling the area whose behaviour had been “sickening and appalling beyond belief”.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, told his parliament on Monday: “It is time to make our power, influence and resources felt . . . Russia cannot expect to continue enjoying access to European markets, European capital, European knowledge and technical expertise while she fuels conflict in one of Europe’s neighbours.”

The ministers meeting in Brussels on Tuesday cannot approve “phase three” sanctions – targeting entire sectors of the Russian economy that must first be backed by EU heads of government. But the UK-led group, including central and eastern European countries, wants to lay the groundwork for such an escalation.

If Mr Cameron wants to sanction Russia, he would do better to sanction Chelsea and support Paris St Germain instead

- French official

Despite growing momentum behind broad EU economic sanctions, which could initially target the Russian military by barring European exports of weapons parts, EU diplomats said some states still resisted the tougher approach, and there were concerns the debate could split the EU.

France in particular is concerned about its €1.2bn contract to sell two Mistral-class helicopter assault ships to Russia and has urged instead an expansion of “phase two” sanctions, which target individuals and companies rather than entire economic sectors.

Paris announced on Tuesday that the delivery of one Mistral would go ahead but the supply of the second vessel would depend on Russia’s attitude to the conflict in Ukraine.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has been urging restraint in conversations with her fellow leaders. Her spokesperson said foreign ministers would be considering only those actions outlined at the last EU summit, which took place before the disaster.

In depth

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17

Pieces of wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 are pictured on July 18, 2014 in Shaktarsk, the day after it crashed. Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which US officials believe was hit by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

News and analysis on the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 by a missile over eastern Ukraine

But the drive for tougher sanctions has been inflamed by accusations pro-Russian separatists have continued to obstruct access to the crash site in eastern Ukraine where the Malaysia Airlines flight was brought down last Thursday. US and Ukrainian intelligence have blamed the disaster on separatists using a surface-to-air missile.

Mr Rutte said on Monday “all political, economic and financial options are on the table” if investigators continue to be hampered. At the same time, Dutch officials worry that precipitous action against Russia could make it harder to gain access to the site.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, accused the west of politicising the incident and called for restraint. “No one has the right to use this tragedy to achieve selfish political objectives,” he said in a video on the Kremlin website. The Russian defence ministry also challenged accusations that pro-Russian separatists were to blame for the incident.

Defence analysts who examined a photo of debris of the Boeing 777 cockpit taken by the Financial Times, said the evidence of the damage was consistent with the airliner having been hit by a missile.

FT photo shows signs of missile hit on airliner

Defence analysts say damage to debris found in village consistent with missile strike

Although British diplomats have attempted to tailor an arms embargo only to affect future contracts in order to win French support, the Mistral sale has come under intense criticism in Washington. Mr Cameron issued some of his most direct censure to date, saying it would be “unthinkable” for Britain to fulfil a similar contract.

“We need to put the pressure on with all our partners to say that we cannot go on doing business as usual with a country when it is behaving in this way,” Mr Cameron said.

Mr Cameron even invoked the years before the second world war, saying: “Those of us in Europe should not need to be reminded of the consequences of turning a blind eye when big countries bully smaller countries.”

Despite the Mistral contract, the Kremlin is not a major importer of large weapons systems from Europe. However, it does require many specialised parts from European manufacturers for some of its most sophisticated military components.

Barack Obama, the US president, accused the separatists of mishandling bodies and wreckage. “These separatists are removing evidence from the crash site,” Mr Obama said. “This begs the question: what are they trying to hide?”

Even those in the EU resisting sanctions the said hardliners were likely to succeed if independent investigators were not given unfettered access to the crash site quickly. “The situation on the ground is not changing,” Gernot Erler, a veteran German Social Democrat lawmaker and government co-ordinator on Russia policy, told German media. “That is a provocation.”

Responding to Mr Cameron’s comments, Paris said France’s position on the Mistral ships had not changed.

“The contracts will be honoured,” a French official told the FT, saying the ships were being supplied unarmed and were “not sophisticated”.

He said UK sanctions on Russian business interests in London would be “much more important financially and economically” against Moscow, citing Chelsea football club, owned by Roman Abramovich.

“If Mr Cameron wants to sanction Russia, he would do better to sanction Chelsea and support Paris St Germain instead,” he said.

Additional reporting by Hugh Carnegy in Paris

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