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Editorial: Ukraine tragedy demands international response

Members of the public view floral tributes adorning

Members of the public view floral tributes adorning the entrance to Schiphol Airport on July 18, 2014 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 MH17 travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed yesterday on the Ukraine/Russia border near the town of Shaktersk. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Christopher Furlong

As last week slammed to a close with searing images of a Malaysia Airlines jet smoldering in Ukrainian fields, the American president who once ran for office promising "to deal with the world as it is rather than what it might be" stepped to the microphones to give a not-so-subtle warning to Russia about igniting Cold War II.

Barack Obama was quite correct to offer Russian President Vladimir Putin a finger-wagging lecture on Friday. Obama said "there will be costs" if Russia proceeds with any military activities in Ukraine.

The president is also right to demand an international response, and he should keep up pressure on European leaders, who until now have been quite reluctant to confront the megalomanic Russian president. While Obama was careful not to directly put blood on Putin's hands, his advisers were less diplomatic.

Before Obama's White House remarks, Samantha Power, our ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council in Manhattan that the Russian weapons were so technically complex that it was "impossible to rule out" that the separatists weren't trained by their Russian sponsors.

Beyond the immediate diplomatic and economic actions the United States and our allies must take, the tragic loss of life could underscore a philosophical turning point -- reversing America's growing retreat from world affairs.

How could it not?

Suddenly a civil war that has raged quietly in an obscure part of the world has broken out into the open -- claiming 298 innocent souls.

It's now evident that a surface-to-air missile destroyed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over a section of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists. It's possible the combatants who fired the missiles thought they had targeted a military aircraft. They had boasted earlier of shooting down at least two Ukrainian military planes.

That it was probably a mistake is of little comfort.

The heartbreaking and jolting images of flaming wreckage and human bodies strewn across the landscape -- including scores of children -- make this an indelible tragedy. And there were the many AIDS doctors, activists and researchers headed for a conference in Australia.

"This looks less like an accident than a crime," said Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia. "And if so, the perpetrators must be brought to justice."

But can Europe do that? It depends on Russia for oil and gas, which has helped explain why some of its leaders have been reticent about calling out Putin on his military adventures -- most recently, his violent annexation of Crimea. But any excuse for silence has vanished.

This unthinkable episode should galvanize public opinion here and around the world -- in a way we have not seen before -- to isolate Putin.

"This was a global tragedy. An Asian airliner was destroyed in European skies, filled with citizens from many countries," Obama said. The victims include 189 Dutch residents, 44 Malaysians, 27 Australians and one American.

All were simply passing though this troubled airspace and lost their lives. The Russian-supported separatists even denied safe passage to international agencies seeking to secure the crash site and recover the remains.

That is not civilized.

The downing of the jetliner escalated the crisis in Ukraine into one of global concern. The international response to this affront to democratic values must be forceful yet targeted despite the risk that a provoked Russia combined with deteriorating conditions in Ukraine could destabilize Europe.

The world is a dangerous and brutal place. We've always known that. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, two Iraq wars and a struggle in Afghanistan that never seemed to end, Americans were hoping for a breather at last -- an opportunity to focus their full attention on domestic needs.

Our outrage over the massacre of innocents, however, makes it impossible to turn away.


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