Obama needs Europe in responding to MH17 Crash, but NSA Spying a Bar

By Simon Reich, Rutgers University

The tragic circumstances surrounding the downing of Malaysian Airlines’ flight MH17 remain unclear. The three parties who might be responsible – the Ukrainians, the Russians and the rebels – all blame each other. All possess, or have the capacity to possess, the Buk surface-to-air missile system that reputedly brought the plane down.

President Obama made clear in a news conference today that Russia’s supply of weaponry to the rebels means that he holds both parties culpable. But whoever is eventually found responsible by the forthcoming international investigation, the incident throws the Ukraine-Russia conflict back onto the international agenda, provoking criticism of Russia’s involvement – whether direct or indirect.

Yet, for the US security establishment, these developments should come as no surprise. Since the end of the Cold War, a continuing concern of the CIA has been the issue of what they describe as “instability on the Russian periphery”. Of course, their more significant geopolitical concern for much of the last two decades has been unfolding events in the “Stans” of central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and – of course – Afghanistan.

Few in the US security establishment have concerned themselves with Russian-Ukrainian relations. They reasonably assumed that Ukraine would inevitably participate in the regional transition to liberal democracy as it spread eastward. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 seemed to confirm this assumption.

The struggle to re-engage Europe

The events of recent months have resulted in a reappraisal in Washington’s halls of power. President Obama, somewhat uncharacteristically, has attempted to assert American multilateral leadership in cajoling his European counterparts into taking a stronger position towards Russia, pushing for stronger sanctions.

But the president’s efforts to engage Europe’s major governments have been complicated by two factors. The first is the continued stream of revelations about NSA spying on Europe’s top brass. It is hard to get America’s supposed allies to co-operate when there is no fundamental trust between the two sides, and their domestic constituencies are clamouring for a bold response to American surveillance. Angela Merkel risks looking like a fool if she is seen to rush to support a president whose agency is bugging her phone.

The second factor is less pressing but perhaps more important: stung by two world wars, the Europeans (and I don’t include the British or the French here) have repudiated the use of war and have often expressed incredulity at Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression. They struggle to offer an adequate military deterrent to Russian incursion, even under NATO’s umbrella. Worse still, they remain overly reliant on Russian oil and gas. So they recognise having few effective options when it comes to Ukraine and have adopted a very cautious approach.

MH17 a game changer?

So that leaves Obama with a quandary: with unenthusiastic partners, how can America deter the Russians? Here is where the reaction to the planes downing in Europe’s major capitals becomes crucial. Will it prove to be, as the BBC has suggested, a “game changer”, providing them with the resolve to support tougher sanctions short of indisputable proof of Russian responsibility for the plane’s downing? Will they be willing to risk Putin’s ire by seizing the opportunity to demand he withdraw any ongoing support for the rebels and reach a broader regional agreement with the Ukrainian government?

Certainly, doing so will require some delicate diplomacy, avoiding any explicit findings of Russian culpability in the shooting down of MH17. But doing nothing also carries its risks, notably that it will further embolden Putin and in fact increase the likelihood of continued Russian support for the rebels.

The domestic backdrop

What is clearer is that Obama will find little enthusiasm for strong action at home. The American public, despite the protests and threats of Republican foreign policy spokesmen like John McCain, is clearly in no mood for what they see as any foreign policy “adventurism”. Generally, the American public does express an innate desire to “do the right thing”, to support the underdog and redress obvious injustices. Politicians will undoubtedly express indignation about the loss of American life. But the fact that there is no clear culprit at this point and that there are no core American interests at stake, will temper these tendencies.

Added to this is the fact that both academics and policy wonks in the US are engaged in a very public debate about the future of American “grand strategy”. Its core question concerns whether the US should sustain or retrench on its global military commitments – and the money spent on them. America spends approximately 4% of its GDP on its military budget, France and the UK about half that figure and Germany 1.3%.

The current Ukrainian-Russian conflict is a poster child for both sides in this debate. It is one in which the Obama has carefully avoided embroiling himself. He has wound down two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Where America has been involved, notably Libya, he has ensured limited American engagement. Deep involvement in the unfolding developments in Ukraine is therefore clearly not enticing for a president with this track record.

Limited options

Against this domestic backdrop, President Obama has few options at his disposal.

Russia’s presence on the Security Council ensures that pursuing any initiative through the United Nations will be fruitless. Any large-scale NATO commitment is out of the question, and even sending a symbolic force to the region risks exactly the kind of messy entanglement to which the president has proven to be allergic.

Unilaterally, America can deepen and expand the sanctions against Russia and against the rebels in eastern Ukraine. The President essentially threatened to do so today. But sanctions take a long time to be effective, any immediate effects are clearly of little concern to Putin in the short term, and simply encourage defiance among Russia’s nationalist parties. America can even increase material support to the Ukrainian government in its fight against the rebels through military and economic aid. But there is no guarantee that will ensure a resolution because the Russians may counter by doing the same for the rebels. In effect, he cannot directly influence developments in the region on his own.

No, President Obama needs solid, consistent and explicit long-term support from Brussels and Europe’s major capitals in order to get anything done – to present a united front both diplomatically and economically. The answer to whether Europe is willing to pay the inevitable cost of doing so will be answered in the coming days.

The Conversation

Simon Reich is Professor in The Division of Global Affairs and The Department of Political Science at Rutgers University

Read the original article.

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Related video:

AFP: “Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash”

24 Responses

  1. If Russia is responsible for MH17 because they _may_ support Ukrainian rebels then the US is responsible for 200,000 dead civilians because they support Syrian rebels.

  2. Interesting aricle. A lot of europeans feel just as threatened by what is seen as US warmongering, as by what is seen as the russian reaction to it.

    This is amazingly not just a view expressed by a minority, but is even deeply ingrained in the elites.

    In germany, members of Helmut Kohl’s old conservative cabinet loudly complained about the US attempt to sabotage the russian-european relations by the ‘uncalled for coup’ in ukraine. And scolded Merkel for going along with it.

    But at the moment still a little less than half of german citizens consider the US a good ally.

    The disaster with the airplane will most likely not change that. The media sees it as a ‘tragic mistake’, that simply occured in the fighting between seperatists und kiew forces.

  3. I find sabre rattling over the shooting down of this airliner a complete waste of ink. No matter who shot the plane down it was clearly an accident. Neither side in this conflict has any interest on in wasting their precious surface to air missiles on aircraft that do not have anything to do with the conflict. So trying to make something out of this seems to me a complete lack of bad faith. Furthermore Germans at least have learned something from the shooting down of the KAL aircraft in 1983 and that is all of the background information behind that incident such as the military maneuvers that had been held near Soviet territory shortly before the KAL plane was shot down and that a US spy plane was operating in the area when the KAL plane was shot down.
    So clearly the US gov. will only tell the world what it wants the world to know not what the world should know.

    • “No matter who shot the plane down it was clearly an accident.,,,So trying to make something out of this seems to me a complete lack of bad faith. …So clearly the US gov. will only tell the world what it wants the world to know not what the world should know.”

      The above statement is ridiculous on its face. 283 people were killed with a ground to air missile, with little doubt that it was the Eastern Ukraine Russian separatists who shot it down. And you say we should not make “make something out of this.”

      I’m sure you would not say that about the Israelis who killed four boys on the beach in Gaza. That was no doubt a mistake as well. The Israelis claim they mistook the boys for Hamas, and they probably did. But that should not let the Israelis off the hook, and I’m sure you would not, nor would I. Why, then, are you so willing to let those who killed 298 people by firing a missile at a civilian aircraft off the hook? Could it be because the U.S. opposes their actions? That is nothing more than a double standard and is unworthy of a rational intellect.

      • Your conclusion without evidence that there is “little doubt” that the eastern Ukraine anti-fascists shot down MH17 is “ridiculous on its face” and mere propaganda, as is your attempt to substitute the emotionalism of the issue for any argument on the matter..

        • On the contrary, the evidence is very much pointing to the Eastern Ukraine pro-Russian separatists as having shot down the aircraft. Have you not been following news of the tragedy?

          Speaking of emotionalism and propaganda, your attempt to call the perpetrators “anti-fascists” fits the bill alright. A little less heat and a little more light would seem to be in order.

        • I follow more than the fake mass media “news” and note that:
          1. MH17 normally routes elsewhere and this flight was diverted to the war zone, and Kiev is concealing the ATC records.
          2. Both sides are said to have the same missiles, US has failed to find launchers claimed to be “going back to Russia,” and a CIA report of satellite evidence suggests that soldiers at the battery which fired seem to be in Kiev uniforms.
          Don’t forget that US media also claimed that the Maine was blown up by Spain in 1898 (it had a coal bunker explosion), refused to report the US military cargo on the Lusitania in 1915, and neglected to inform us that KA flight “007” was shot down over USSR missile bases on a surveillance mission.

          So much for US media information.

        • You are to be commended for following more than the “fake mass media news.” Those of us with whom you disagree do likewise.

          Aside from the “Maine” episode of 1998, your examples lack any evidence and appear to be woven from whole cloth without substance. Malaysian Airlines, like many others, routinely used the air corridor over Ukraine. There is clear evidence of SA-11 launchers returning to Russian territory, there is no CIA report “suggesting” that those who fired the SA-11 were Ukrainian central government soldiers, nor is there evidence that KAL-007 was on a “surveillance mission.”

          You will have to do better than that to be taken seriously.

        • Both sides have the same missiles but the Ukrainian govt. would have no reason to shoot down any plane. The separatists don’t have aircraft and government forces couldn’t possibly fire without knowing the plane was civilian UNLESS it was a FALSE FLAG OPERATION.

          Circumstantial evidence is pointing LOUDLY at Putin and the separatists being the guilty parties. Why didn’t they allow investigators access to the crash sire on the first day?

  4. A clear line has been crossed. Russia has announced by this incident that they belong to the class of rogue states. Are they “too big to fail”?

    • Rogue states? Sounds like Russia has rejoined the ranks of historical great powers, all of whom have committed countless horrible crimes since the rise of the West 500 years ago.

      Have you forgotten that Iranian airliner full of civilians the US Navy shot down 25 years ago? What worthy cause were we there supporting at the time? Saddam Hussein?

      Or the way we rewarded Suharto’s new dictatorship in Indonesia with an alliance after it murdered half a million Chinese and leftists in 1965-66? And went on to murder hundreds of thousands more in several anti-separatist wars?

      That’s normal great power behavior. To be a rogue state, you have to threaten wars without being of use to the global capitalist economy. China and Russia are too important to ostracize with that economy still in danger of collapsing.

  5. “When I looked into his eyes, I saw three letters—K G B.”

    “We are all Georgians today.”

    John McCain, Lindsey Graham and all the neocons will be moondancing in a conga line down Pennsylvania avenue as soon as the missile and/or crew gets traced backed to Putin.

    The War Party could not ask for anything better than a “Vlad the Bad” missile shooting down a commercial jet and murdering 300 innocent civilians.

  6. The U.S. is in no way a sort of neutral Platonic state without base and mundane (including ‘subterranean’) interests. One must apply one’s skepticism realistically (which is not to say binarily or even with axiomatic impartiality/neutrality), the advancement of geopolitical power over adversaries and ‘allies’ alike is what is at play here (in this sinister event) and in a default generality, humanitarian concerns and publicly circulating notions of ‘justice’ are employed by states principally to dress and address events in formulaic and Manichean cliches that promote geostrategic aims in publicly acceptable/intelligible fashion, all the while maintaining an ‘inhuman’ hyperrational eye on the abstractive fundamental concerns of sovereign and elite power; this is called, quite simply, raison d’état and has been an unnegatable theoretical (not to mention practical) factor in the study and exercise of power since the time of Machiavelli.

  7. It might have been best for the majority of the casualaties to have been German, rather than Dutch, because then we would get some serious sanctions. With just four Germans dead, Merkel can continue to backslide.

  8. I think even Putin is beginning to realize that by biting off the Crimea from Ukraine and instigating and supporting the Eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists, he has unleashed a whirlwind that is now out of his control. Russia needs to pay a price for its actions, but we have bigger fish to fry with Russia than Ukraine, and we need to work with Putin to give him an “off-ramp” to climb down and eventually restore a reasonable relationship that is in both our interests.

    • You’re right, but the way that democracy interferes with diplomacy makes it impossible that things will be done your way. Complex arguments don’t sway publics – either they cave in to a faction expressing a simple emotion, belligerence or cowardice, or they put their faith in a leader whose complex maneuverings they trust without understanding.

      I wish I knew of an alternative to that, but I’ve given up expecting voters to understand a damn thing about the outside world when they want to believe that Latin American kids are Moslem terrorists carrying the Ebola virus.

  9. We should have dissolved NATO in 1991. It should have been Europe’s business to defend itself from whatever arose from the ruins in Russia. Instead we tried to expand NATO and guaranteed the Russian people would turn to a strongman to stem the tide of humiliation and Wall Street rapine.

    If we’re willing to demand that our government respects the will of Europe’s voters – not just in one or two gerrymandered neocon states – then there’s a way out of this. Europe must abandon the pathology of “austerity” and start taxing its tycoons and paying its people to build their own military, fully independent of the Pentagon. Which has not existed in 60 years. I’m proposing that all of Europe adopt deGaulle’s stance of having a sovereign foreign policy, kick out US bases and aircraft, and stop treating their entire national militaries as supplements on Pentagon’s order of battle.

    That means it’s up to them how to deal with Putin, war or peace. DeGaulle’s handful of nukes aimed at Moscow may have been all the deterrent the West ever needed, and surely Germany, France and the UK together can build such a deterrent now. As for the rest of the world, the Communists’ power projection turned out to be laughable and a narrow-minded nationalist like Putin can’t even get past Syria.

  10. WSJ is asking some who-knew-what-when questions.
    Ukraine Knew of Separatists’ Air-Defense Capabilities, Say Officials
    Claims Raise Questions of Why Ukraine Failed to Close Airspace
    KIEV—Ukraine intelligence officials said they knew three days before the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 that rebels in the east of the country possessed sophisticated air-defense systems capable of felling a jetliner at altitudes in excess of where the Boeing 777 was flying.

    The disclosure deepens the mystery of why Ukrainian aviation officials failed to entirely close off the airspace in the Donetsk region, where the jet was flying went it was shot down, killing all 298 people on board.

    Next question: what did the “West” know and when.

  11. Did Vladimir Putin give the separatists this sophisticated missile without making sure they could not play cowboy and shoot down a civilian aircraft by mistake?

    It’s looking like that’s what actually happened. These separatists were playing cowboy and pulled the trigger without taking the time to find out what kind of plane they were bringing down. Now, they are delaying the investigation and destroying key evidence while Vladimir Putin is nowhere to be found.

  12. Let us thank Professor Reich for reminding us how we are supposed to continue “policy-think” based on traditional, proven-failure Great Game “analysis” and shibboleths and argument. Regarding Ukraine and MH17, maybe let’s start with the silly notion that “all the facts are not in,” followed by reflections on past “incidents” where the Players have played the rest of us by various manipulations of apparent factoids (anyone for a piece of yellowcake? With a side of centrifuge tubes? and trailer labs full of Germ Weapons?) on the downhill slope to more war, all the time.

    Nice “{serious}”think piece, complete with credentials. Full of hoary old thought processes, assumptions and “policy advice.” Starts with the assumption that The One Great Power of the World, through its Emperor/President, can and should “act!”to “do something!”about the inevitable use of weapons of war against “civilians” in a world where the mythology of “international law and order”is really starting to diverge steeply and visibly from the reality. Weapons profitably made, “policy”mostly about deploying them and “force structure”and “power projection”and “creative instability,”under the chin noise about “spreading democracy.” All to make sure extractive businesses are safe from Something or Other… link to alternet.org

    Just about every line in the piece is challengeable. Americans want to do the right thing, and root for the underdog? Really? European powers (other than Britain and France, I guess) don’t get involved in war? How many German and other NATO troops and weapons have been part of our Imperial “coalitions?” And Obama holds Putin accountable? Gee, who fomented a coup in Ukraine recently? link to informationclearinghouse.info I guess maybe it’s sort of “true” that “few” in the “US security establishment” have concerned themselves with Russo-Ukraine relations — the “few” involved in continuing the ol’ policy of “encirclement” and “destabilization.” An eastward-spreading “regional transition to liberal democracy?” Really, one can say that with a straight face? And who is setting things up for more shoot-downs by giving “moderate gunmen” guided antiarcraft weapons, speaking now about the broader global Battlespace and Grand Strategies? link to dfat.gov.au, a “policy” leading this list of fun and games: link to en.wikipedia.org, and gee, what a surprise, “Trigger-happy men star in history of passenger plane shoot-downs,” link to nation.co.ke And yes, a Buk SA-11 is not a MANPADS, but it’s just another device shootable by “trigger-happy” or BokoHaramidiotic males…

    “Re-engage Europe?” The mostly US-originated financial crash has trashed the ordinary people of Europe, but the “warrior classes” there have been busy as Coalition bees in Iraq, and Afghanistan and multiple other US imperial adventures imperiling ordinary people all over the planet, under the general rubric “Global Interoperable Network-Centric Battlespace.” Which has as its goal the interconnection of military castes and classes and armament makers and other contractors on all “sides,” to make the world safe for extractive vulture capitalism (aka “liberal democracy”) and be ready to “run things” when the global warming consequences break older institutions and relations into “competing” pieces.

    What a surprise that Europeans would resent visible spying on them by “US,” since “we” don’t resent e.g. Israeli spying on “US” very much. And we have this bit from Ambassador Victoria “F__k the EU” Nuland, on what it costs to overthrow a democratically elected government: link to informationclearinghouse.info As to deterrence of the Russian Bear, welcome back to the comfortable days of Cold War idiocy, that other face painted on the raddled b__ch called the “Great Game.” link to earthspheredevelopment.com

    The Professor critiques EU nations for apparently not spending as large a percentage of their GDP on the weapons and tactics and strategies that so threaten more instability and destruction. Is percent of GDP the proper measure of a “right-sized military?” Hmmm? How much do European nations spend on weapons of social destruction, again? “Adequate military deterrent to Russian incursion?” Really? While using the veiled threat of Western power, from sanctions to several thousand nuclear weapons and everything in between, to “incur” into Russia, setting the table for a Putin to keep the Bear Stew on the boil? Of course, this is part of the mix, too: link to hangthebankers.com

    A “game changer,” is MH17? Maybe a “game instigator,” or “game extender.” One wonders, in the age of “Wag the Dog” policies and sneaky-petery, how one manages “indisputable proof” of ANYthing. When our Empire assumes the “right” to pursue what our elites define as their “interests,” in ways at least as intrusive and outrageous as anything Great Game apologists assign to “Putin,” who rides the tiger as surely as “Obama,” where do “we” get off chatting up the “badness” of the Russian side of interventions in Ukraine? All the polling, and even says US citizens oppopse any US involvement in Ukraine, while of course, out of habit and greed and idiocy, “our” sneaks are busy fomenting yet another “regime change” and boatload of instability — link to alternet.org

    Yeah let’s US ‘expand and deepen” those so-very-effective “sanctions,” and is it not sad that Obama, who has loosed the black-ops drone dogs of war all over the place is supposedly “allergic” to more messy entanglements of the sort so beloved of neoliberaliconservatives? Yeah, let’s line up some solid, long-term support from the Players in Brussels to “get anything done,” meaning what, again? More of the same “interventions?” More death and poverty for ordinary people? What music, specifically, is Professor Reich advising the Empire and its “partners” to dance to?

  13. All the facts were never in about 9/11, but there were enough to conclude that it wasn’t a false flag attack. The doubters based their theory on WTC bldg. #7 collapsing late in the day and the plane hitting the Pentagon. However, they ignore the fact that Mohammed Atta formed his cell in Hamburg, Germany and they entered this country in June, 2000, 15 months before 9/11. The false flag conspiracy believers ignore many other facts that made it IMPOSSIBLE for 9/11 to have been a false flag attack.

    All of the facts about this latest attack will never been known because they crash site was contaminated. However, some conclusions can still be drawn: This attack was done by missile and the Ukrainian govt. had no reason to fire even one because the separatists don’t have any planes. The Uk. govt. controlled the skies and were hammering the rebels. The rebels and Putin desperately needed to limit these attacks. Sophisticate missiles would do that.

    Neither Putin or Lavrov and denied the missile was Russian, not once. IMO, these non-denials shows consciousness of guilt.

    JTMcPhee, everything you said about the U.S. and especially, Victoria Nuland planning this coup is true, IMO. There is a VERY strong probability that Right Sector neo-nazis were the ones who killed all the people on both sides when the Ukrainian govt. collapsed. We helped pull off the coup backed Putin into a corner and he reacted.

    John McCain’s friend “Misha” did the same thing in Georgia.

    Backing Vladimir Putin into a corner is a very, VERY dangerous thing to do.

    • Jack, It is no “conspiracy theory” to point out that airplane crashes did not cause bldg 7 to collapse on 9/11. No independent investigation has been allowed of this curious fact?

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