The burning embers of an international airliner litter a Ukrainian field. 298 dead. The west blames Putin. President Putin blames Ukraine and the west. Pro-Russian rebels strip the dead and obstruct the investigation. MH17 has made east Ukraine an American crisis and an EU catastrophe. Still, because the US and EU see the Ukraine crisis in very different ways, it’s difficult to say what will happen next.
First, let’s be clear about culpability. Whatever the Russian government might claim, the Donetsk rebels have an undeniably close relationship with Putin’s intelligence services. In a few months, thugs with AK-47s have become capable of withstanding the Ukrainian military. They’ve ambushed armoured troop convoys. They’ve repeatedly downed helicopters and transport planes. They’ve acted with coordinated focus. In short, they’ve become more than thugs. And there’s only one explanation for their development: their access to training, supply provisions, intelligence support and active operational guidance from Russian intelligence. US intelligence services have no doubt of this.
In large part, that’s why an FBI Rapid Deployment Team (RDT) has arrived in Ukraine. The urgency of this FBI deployment to a hostile environment is an indication of the US concern at what’s happened. Moreover, this RDT is almost certainly supported by FBI or US Special Forces. As they investigate the crash site, these personnel will give America’s policy in Ukraine a new, more aggressive physical character. In Washington, it’s likely that Obama will face pressure from Congress for tougher sanctions against Russia.
Of course, truly effective sanctions will require EU support. Earning that support will take some deft American diplomacy.
Until now, the US and EU have diverged in their respective strategies towards Ukraine. While Obama has focused on containing Russia’s expansionism, the EU’s focus has been narrower: Merkel cares about European stability, but she’s anxious not to jeapordise Germany’s access to Russian energy. Hollande seeks a stronger EU, yet his defence industry also finds an extravagant trough in the Kremlin. Where Cameron shares American anger, he also wants to preserve London’s facility for Russian finance. These three attitudes explain why Germany has called for ‘co-operation, not confrontation’ with Russia. So far, Putin has manipulated these disagreements to his own advantage. Correspondingly, as Obama seeks EU support, expect him to use increasingly blunt rhetoric. The American President is likely to center MH17 in the ongoing EU identity debate. ‘How,’ Obama will probably ask, ‘can the EU survive tolerating such unrestrained aggression?’
Nevertheless, Putin’s arrogant response is likely to strengthen Obama’s hand. If Russia has indeed moved SA-11 surface-to-air platforms out of east Ukraine (one of which is believed to have shot down MH17), that evidence will be damning. Since the moment MH17 went down, Russia has shown utter disdain for the victims. As an extension, rebel obstruction of crash site investigators was probably a Russian effort to remove evidence that might link them to the attack. In the coming days, it will be interesting to see whether the Obama administration releases satellite imagery (or other intelligence product) that highlights this deception effort. After all, when MH17 went down, the US would have immediately tasked satellites to monitor the crash site. We might see a ‘don’t wait for the translation’ from America’s fiery UN Ambassador, Samantha Power. On the flip side, Putin is hoping that the US won’t want to divulge its intelligence capabilities and sources (the Pentagon and CIA have already had a tense relationship over Ukraine related intelligence).
Ultimately, that MH17’s passengers were predominantly European will equal major EU influence over what happens next. If MH17 had set off from an American city, and if 193 Americans had been killed (instead of 193 Dutch nationals), we’d be looking at a very different situation right now. In that circumstance, amidst footage of American bodies being looted, Obama might have been forced into a direct US military response against the rebels.