By Rod McGuirk, AP
CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s prime minister said Wednesday that he is not considering ratcheting up sanctions against Russia while his government focuses on retrieving Australian victims from the wreckage of the Malaysian airliner disaster in Ukraine.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has had several telephone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past two weeks and has credited him for cooperating with international efforts to retrieve the remains of the 298 people killed when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a missile. Pro-Russia separatists are blamed for firing the missile and have controlled the site where the plane crashed in rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine.
Abbott said he was not considering following the United States and European Union by increasing sanctions aimed at pressuring Putin into ending his country’s support for the separatists.
“We already have some sanctions on Russia. I’m not saying that we might not at some point in the future move further. But at the moment, our focus is not on sanctions; our focus is on bringing home our dead as quickly as we humanly can,” Abbott told reporters.
Australia lost 28 citizens in the July 17 disaster and sponsored a United Nations Security Council Resolution that was passed with Russian support. The resolution demands the separatists allow the dead to be retrieved and international investigators free access to the crash site.
But a resurgence in fighting between the separatists and Ukrainian troops in recent days has prevented Dutch and Australian police from searching the site for human remains and evidence.
Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten gave rare, unqualified support to Abbott’s stance on Russia. “Our priority should be the recovery of the remains and also the safety of our police personnel in eastern Ukraine,” he told reporters Wednesday. “That is the only game in town for Australia right now.”
Spurred to action by the downing of the airliner, the European Union approved dramatically tougher economic sanctions Tuesday against Russia, including an arms embargo and restrictions on state-owned banks. U.S. President Barack Obama followed with an expansion of U.S. penalties targeting key sectors of the Russian economy.
Obama and U.S. allies also warned that Russia was building up troops and weaponry along its border with Ukraine.
Australia introduced financial sanctions and travel bans on June 19 targeting 50 people and 11 entities complicit in the Russian threat to Ukrainian sovereignty.