The Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 disaster should have been a wake-up call for Vladimir Putin. It wasn’t.
Instead of decreasing aid for pro-Russian separatists who almost certainly shot the plane down with a Russian missile, Putin is upping the ante. While denying any responsibility for the 298 dead, he is sending additional troops to the Ukrainian border and preparing to send more deadly weapons to the separatists.
This despite the fact that the air tragedy has finally jolted the European Union into imposing new and tougher economic sanctions on Russia – matched by Washington. These sanctions will curb capital flows to Russian banks and hamper the development of key oil fields.
But sanctions alone are insufficient to move Putin. A firmer U.S.-European response is needed at this critical moment, including helping Ukraine target the types of Russian-supplied missiles that destroyed the Malaysian plane.
As a debate reportedly rages among Russia’s elites over Putin’s tactics, he still appears unwilling to relinquish his obsession with dragging Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit. He can’t give up his grandiose pipe dream of a Eurasian empire and seems oblivious to the rising popular anger in Europe at his threat to decades of peace.
However, Putin is not immune to Western pressure. After his seizure of Crimea, and the first imposition of U.S. and European sanctions, he appeared to drop plans to invade eastern and southern Ukraine, and pulled his troops back from the border. Those sanctions, although mild, seriously affected Russia’s growth projections, which worried the nation’s business class.
Europe’s previous reluctance to impose stiff sanctions, and its fear of targeting Russia’s gas sector, seems to have convinced Putin that he could resume operations in Ukraine. He may also have been surprised at Ukraine’s stiff military resistance to the separatists and decided he must prevent their defeat. He knows they would be routed without Russian support.
So Putin is testing Obama and the Europeans by doubling down on the rebels. The impact of current sanctions on the Russian economy will be long-term; in the short term, he hopes to persuade Ukraine that it must kowtow or Russia will keep it permanently unstable and drowned in military expenses.
In other words, Putin doesn’t want a “negotiated solution” (unless Kiev gives in to Moscow’s demands). He wants to keep the pot boiling. That’s why it is critical that the White House rethink its reluctance to give Kiev more military help.
“Considering the external threat, military assistance to Ukraine is of essential importance,” I was told by Olexander Motsyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington.
So far, U.S. aid has consisted of nonlethal items such as body armor and meals-ready-to-eat, and even that was slow in coming.
On Tuesday, Obama sharply rebuffed a journalist’s question on lethal aid to Ukrainian forces. “They are better-armed than the separatists,” he snapped. That’s clearly untrue when it comes to the missiles Russia has supplied. According to U.S. intelligence, that weaponry has shot down at least four Ukrainian aircraft, in addition to the Malaysian plane.
It’s absurd that the administration has refused to share intelligence on specific locations of surface-to-air missiles controlled by the separatists, which would allow Ukrainian forces to target them. Obama insisted to the “pesky” journalist that the best way to influence Russia’s behavior was to target its economy.
Never mind that Putin has made clear that this won’t be sufficient in the short term.
What better way to show Putin that the West is serious than to help Ukrainians defend against the very weapons that blew up Flight 17? And what better time than now, when it might affect the debate within Russia? If Putin finally believes that Washington is serious, he might consider a face-saving way to exit Ukraine.
The counterargument is that any military help to Ukraine might corner Putin and make him even more dangerous. Along those lines, I was referred to a passage in a fascinating book of Putin interviews conducted in 2000, just after he took power, in which the Russian president recalled a childhood incident with relevance to his conduct in Ukraine.
In his family’s communal apartment, hordes of rats had gathered in the entryway, and Putin drove one huge rat into a corner. With nowhere to run, the rat threw itself at the startled boy, then jumped the landing and ran past him. “There on that stair landing, I got a … lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered,” said Putin.
“He said that experience taught him a good lesson. Never to put yourself in a corner,” recalls Natalya Gevorkyan, one of the interviewers who compiled “First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President.”
“He’s exactly the same now,” she told me. “When he’s in a corner, he jumps.”
Yet, at the end of this anecdote, Putin added that he outsmarted the rat. “I was a little faster, and I managed to slam the door shut in its nose,” he said.
If Obama and EU leaders want to make Putin reverse course, they need to outrun and outsmart him. That is the only way to slam the door on Russian aggression in Ukraine.