International investigators abandoned efforts to reach the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash site for the fourth day Wednesday, amid reports that rebels have laid landmines throughout the area. It's not clear what steps the infuriated international community can or will take in order to gain access to the site and remove any physical remains or personal effects of the 298 people who were killed when the plane was shot down.
Russian-supported rebel groups are in control of the crash site and, even with the eyes of the world upon them, they've refused to agree to even a temporary cease-fire, thus making it impossible for investigators to reach the isolated field safely. Australian, Dutch and Malaysian humanitarian workers have been repeatedly rebuffed.
The rebels “have brought a large number of heavy artillery there and mined approaches to this area,” Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told Australian news outlets from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. “This makes impossible the work of international experts trying to start work to establish the reasons behind the Boeing 777 crash.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to force the rebels, who rely on weapons and funding supplied by Moscow, to provide investigators with safe passage. It's unclear if Putin is capable of controlling the separatists.
Meanwhile, there's evidence that Putin's own people don't hold him responsible for the problems that the MH17 shoot-down has caused for Russia. A poll conducted by the Levada Center, an independent Russian research organization, indicated Wednesday that 82% of the Russian public blamed the Ukrainian military for shooting down the plane. Most believe a surface-to-air missile or fighter jet was responsible, with Levada Center sociologist telling the Guardian that 94% of Russians rely on state-controlled television for news out of Ukraine.
“A different reality has been created on television, where there are different theories, different history, different images, which equate the Ukrainian forces with fascists,” he said. This perception is part of the reason that the rebels are able to hold off humanitarian efforts, even with human remains still lying uncovered near the crash site.
Regional officials in Donestk, the separatist stronghold, told the BBC that 19 people have been killed by fighting over the last 24 hours alone. Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, the head of the Dutch recovery team, told the New York Times that the current violence is keeping teams out of the area. “The experts have to work in a safe environment,” he said. “Because of all the gunfire in the area, this is currently not possible. This is a reality we have to deal with.”
So far the U.S. and European Union have imposed increasingly strict sanctions on Russia, most recently targeting banks and trying to squeeze the Russian economy, which relies heavily on energy exports.
Yet other officials -- General Philip Breedlove, for one -- have proposed expanding the existing NATO base in Szczecin, Poland, as a precautionary measure. Breedlove, the top U.S. commander in Europe, told the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank with close ties to NATO, that the U.S., Britain and other NATO allies would stock the base with supplies including weapons, ammunition and ration packs in the event that thousands of troops were sent there unexpectedly.
“It would be a 24/7 fully functioning headquarters that forces could quickly fall in on to respond rapidly when needed,” an anonymous source told the Atlantic Council. “The Russians have decided that they are willing to use force to achieve their aims … and that breaks with 25 years of building a security structure in Europe built around certain fundamentals.”