Politics & Policy

MH17 and the Price of Obama’s Weakness

(Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
The president must be tougher toward Putin.

Last Friday, on the morning after the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, President Obama made his first foray in front of the cameras to talk about the incident. He explained that Russia had given the Ukrainian rebels powerful anti-aircraft missiles capable of shooting down a passenger liner at a height of more than 30,000 feet. He issued a warning: “Evidence must not be tampered with. Investigators need to access the crash site.”

By Sunday morning, Secretary of State John Kerry was angrily complaining on four different television shows that the Moscow-backed rebels were, in fact, tampering with evidence and blocking access to the crash site. Despite this slap in the face, Obama went back in front of the cameras on Monday morning to deliver another solemn lecture to Putin and his uncooperative thugs at the crash site. Obama even implored Putin to join him in pursuing a diplomatic solution.

The president did everything except acknowledge that his own weakness is why Putin continues to commit one outrage after another.

Since February, Obama has been drawing red lines at an alarming rate. Each time, he warns there will be “costs” and “consequences” if Putin crosses the new boundary, which Putin promptly does. Then Obama retreats to a new red line and issues another hollow threat. For months, only Ukraine has paid the price for this tragicomic diplomacy. Now it has cost the lives of hundreds of Europeans as well as one American. Will Obama begin to negotiate from a position of strength or just wait until the death toll rises further?

The way forward is clear. The United States and Europe must impose sanctions on entire sectors of the Russian economy, such as banking and energy production, rather than targeting specific companies or individuals. The U.S. must also provide all necessary weapons and training to the Ukrainian military, whose unexpected success provoked Putin’s reckless decision to provide anti-aircraft missiles to the separatists.

Before Putin invaded Crimea, President Obama warned that “there will be costs for any military intervention.” Those costs amounted to a set of pinpricks when the U.S. and Europe announced sanctions on a handful of Putin’s supporters as well as some companies closely tied to the government. But despite the limited nature of the sanctions, there were some indications they might be working.

MICEX, the Russian stock market, rapidly lost 15 percent of its value. Capital flight accelerated. But the MICEX rose again once the lack of Western resolve became clear. The ruble even recovered some of the value it has been losing continuously for the past three years. And Russia has ample foreign-currency reserves with which to counteract the effects of capital flight.

Nonetheless, the Russian economy remains vulnerable. It was already on the brink of recession before the invasion of Crimea. If the U.S. and Europe push together, sanctions can inflict substantial harm on those who have grown rich from Putin’s crony capitalism. Humiliating Washington and Kiev is enjoyable when the costs are low, but the wealthy elite on whom Putin depends may hesitate to sacrifice their lifestyle in behalf of amateur rebels incapable of stirring much popular support in their alleged homeland.

From the beginning, Western Europe has resisted all serious efforts to hold Putin accountable for his aggression. This is the natural consequence of having both strong commercial ties with Russia and a sense of security that comes from having buffer states such as Poland. Yet now there is an opening for Obama to press hard for joint sectoral sanctions, since the Dutch and their neighbors have been forced to recognize their true vulnerability.

Since the embarrassing implosion of U.S.-trained Iraqi forces in June, military aid has perhaps lost some of its appeal to taxpayers. Yet Ukraine has both the political leadership and the committed troops to justify the cost. Putin has escalated the conflict in eastern Ukraine because his adversary in Kiev, the democratically elected president Petro Poroshenko, has proven much wilier than the Russian president’s critics in Washington, London, or Berlin.

Poroshenko sought a political resolution to the situation in the east but was prepared to employ force once negotiations broke down. When the fighting resumed, Ukrainian forces pushed back the separatists, retaking the key port city of Mariupol and the former separatist stronghold of Slovyansk. As a result, the separatists are falling back to lines around the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk, the principal cities in the provinces (oblasts) of the same names. With his proxies on the run, Putin started sending in heavier weapons to reinforce them, including T-64 tanks, armored vehicles, and the aforementioned anti-aircraft missile batteries capable of shooting down planes at an altitude of more than 30,000 feet.

Before Poroshenko’s election in a landslide, the uncertain status of the interim government in Kiev warranted caution regarding the provision of weapons. But now there is a government with the legitimacy and resolve to restore its sovereignty if the United States provides it with the necessary tools.

The tragedy of flight MH17 has given President Obama an opportunity to turn the tables on Putin. But he can do so only if he learns that weakness has a terrible price, even if retreat and passivity are convenient options in the short run. This is a lesson Obama should apply no less vigorously to relations with Iran, Iraq, Syria, and China, before another tragedy exposes the shoddy nature of his foreign policy.

— David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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