What the U.S. Can Do Now to Punish Russia
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The Fiscal Times
July 20, 2014

A day after President Obama announced a new round of sanctions against Russian companies and individuals, the unthinkable happened: A Malaysian Airlines jet carrying nearly 300 passengers was shot out of the sky near the border of Russia and Ukraine. 

No formal blame has been assigned, but all evidence is pointing toward the guilt of Russian separatists in Ukraine. These rebels had bragged about having the Buk surface-to-air missile that intelligence sources in the United States and Ukraine say took down the plane. Ukrainian intelligence has also released recordings of these same separatists mistakenly bragging about taking down a cargo jet around the time the Malaysian flight went down.

Why Putin Could Pay for the Downing of Flight MH17

The Forbes translation suggests the Russian military may have helped the separatists pull the trigger. They said, “The transcripts of the intercepted calls show that rebels on the ground were receiving instructions from superiors in Russian military intelligence (GRU), that they discussed receipt, disposition (including hiding), and use of BUKs to bring down Ukrainian planes….” These same rebels are now hindering investigations into the crash and the recovery of bodies.

Behind all of this lurks Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has been fanning the flames of civil war in Ukraine for months. He has been supplying weapons and personnel to the region to keep the fight going. There are numerous reports that he supplied the rebels with the Buk missiles thought to be responsible for taking down the plane. Putin, keeping in character, remained defiant, putting the blame for the disaster on Ukraine. 

"This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine," he said. "And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy." 

World leaders were unmoved by Putin’s comments. As more evidence emerges that he was in part responsible for a mistake that killed people from 11 countries, the international community is turning on the cocksure Russian president. 

The former Soviet state Latvia said Russia bears “full responsibility” for arming the rebels, while Lithuania called the attack a “brutal act of terror.”

“They [the militants] are Russian proxies essentially," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said. "This is only happening because Russia wants to stir up trouble." 

Related: Did Russia Just Push the World to the Brink of War? 

President Obama, who has appeared to be one step behind Putin in Ukraine and in other global crises around the world, now has a unique opportunity. Putin is more isolated than ever; if there is more evidence that the weapons he supplied were used to take down the jet, he would stand isolated among world powers.

“Foreign policy leadership is sometimes a matter of luck. President Obama’s announcements of stronger financial sanctions against Russia a day before the Malaysian plane crash was extremely fortuitous,” said Edward Goldberg, a professor at Baruch College and the New York University Center for Global Affairs. “It put him in front of the issue, prevented Republican criticism over leadership and gained the White House the moral high ground. 

This high ground allows the United States, along with its allies in Europe, to take more forceful steps to get Putin out of Ukraine. Below are three options to finally end the crisis there.

Related: Obama’s Strategy to Bankrupt Russia Isn’t Working 

Arm the Ukrainian military. So far, the United States has resisted providing military assistance to the Ukrainian military. In the wake of the airline disaster, calls for arming the rebels grew stronger.

“It's a cowardly act on our part not to give the Ukrainians any defensive weapons," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said Friday during an appearance on Phoenix radio station KFYI (550 AM). "They've been begging us for weapons with which to defend themselves, where perhaps they could have defeated these separatists."

If the United States decides to arm Ukraine, it would likely do so alone. To get Europe on board, it would have to increase economic sanctions. 

Strangle the Russian economy. The timing of new U.S. sanctions against Russia could not have been better. But to really strangle the Russian economy in a way that would force Putin to leave Ukraine, Europe needs to get on board. European Union members have been reluctant to impose tougher sanctions on Russia, fearing that their energy relationship with Moscow would be damaged.

With the airline disaster, Europe now has the perfect excuse to further punish Putin. It’s summer so the continent is using less gas. It also has reserves following a mild winter. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most important politician in Europe, has already indicated that she does not intend to take a hard line with Russia.

Related: Malaysian Crash Could Bring Tougher Sanctions Against Russia

"Regarding sanctions, I'd like to point out that the events with the plane, as far as I remember, were not even 24 hours ago and at the moment we need to sort out an independent investigation," Merkel told Reuters, despite a number of Germans dying in the disaster. "So it's perhaps premature to draw conclusions before we have access to the remains of the plane."

Extend NATO membership to Ukraine. The Ukraine crisis started because Kiev wanted a closer relationship with Europe. Now, Europe and Ukrainian politicians have a new reason to strengthen ties.

“Putin has destroyed any hope of accomplishing his original objective of preventing a Ukraine/EU alliance,” NYU’s Goldberg said. “The only way that can now occur is for an actual Russian invasion of Ukraine, which would have disastrous implications for Russia and the world.”

The most powerful way to cement Ukraine’s ties with Europe would be to invite it to join NATO. In 2008, Ukraine submitted a membership action plan to NATO, a formal request to start the process of joining the alliance. However, the plan was set aside in 2010, when pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych decided he wanted to keep Ukraine a non-aligned state.

Yanukovych has since fled the country, and the interim government of Arseniy Yatsenyuk said it does not intend to pursue NATO membership. However, the simple offer of membership from NATO membership to Kiev would infuriate Putin, who sees the alliance’s eastern expansion as a threat to Russian sovereignty.

If there were evidence that Russian weapons took down the jet, he would be in no position to object.

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An editor-at-large for The Fiscal Times, David Francis has reported from all over the world on issues that range from defense to border security to transatlantic relations.