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POLITICS: PennAve

Why Malaysian Airlines crash was not a game-changer, after all

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Politics,White House,Barack Obama,Russia,National Security,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Vladimir Putin,Ukraine,Magazine,Malaysia Airlines Disaster

For President Obama, the crash of a Malaysian Airlines flight in Ukraine wasn't really a game-changer.

Even as global anger against Russian President Vladimir Putin has grown for his indirect role in the crash, Obama hasn't spent much political capital pressing the issue, while Europe remains too dependent on Russian oil to act on its own.

Experts on the region say Putin is not off the hook yet and Obama could still use the horrific crash to pressure him to change, but they stress that he’ll need to act soon.

“The people who think Putin is backed in a corner are thinking wishfully,” said the John Herbst, the director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006.

If in fact the U.S. and the Europeans were serious about isolating Putin, then the shoot-down of the commercial airliner would have been “a Rubicon for them -- they would have imposed serious sanctions,” he said.

Instead, European Union ministers meeting at a summit in Brussels only agreed to concrete proposals to draw up a list of Russians who could be targeted by sanctions.

Obama had some harsh words about the situation, saying that other world leaders were “in a state of outrage” over the downing of a commercial jetliner and offering condolences at the Dutch embassy in Washington.

But he chose not to spend any direct political capital lobbying Europe to impose hard-hitting new sanctions on Russia, opting instead to head to the West Coast for a series of fundraisers. He was also noticeably absent from memorial events in the Netherlands, where he could have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the friends and families of the victims.

The Netherlands was one of the most vocal EU countries resisting more sanctions on Russia before the downing of Flight 17, but the Dutch were clearly shaken by the killing of more than 100 of their countrymen by Russian-backed separatists who thought they were targeting a military plane.

Critics think Obama and other Western leaders could be doing far more to penalize Putin for his role in encouraging the separatists.

Christian Whiton, a former senior adviser in the State Department under President George W. Bush, says Putin is engaging in “naked aggression,” and is “pushing an open door and feeling very little resistance from the West.”

A State Department spokeswoman on Thursday confirmed that Russian soldiers were firing artillery at Ukrainian troops across the border, but did not indicate how the administration planned to respond other than to say officials would talk to their European counterparts.

Europe's energy ties to Russia are hurting its foreign policy goals, Whiton argued. Some 79 percent of Russia's crude oil exports goes to Europe, with Germany receiving the most, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The tragedy seems to be boosting Putin's standing at home. A Gallup poll released last week shows his popularity in Russia at its highest level in six years, shooting up to 83 percent, an unheard of level for any politician in the United States.

While Obama is getting the lowest public marks of his presidency on leadership and foreign policy, Putin has Russians feeling patriotic again, and even hopeful about their economy, despite U.S. and European sanctions, the Gallup poll showed.

As Russia's relations have frayed with the U.S. and Europe, Putin has strengthened Russia's ties to China, inking a $400 million gas deal in May that will inevitably further insulate its economy from U.S.-led penalties.

American and European lawmakers have only been willing to impose weak sanctions that don’t disrupt the oil and gas windfalls that keep Putin and his Russian oligarch friends so comfortable.

The U.S. has the capability of doing far more on its own, Herbst argues. Along with providing lethal support to the Ukrainian and NATO allies in Eastern Europe, the U.S. could prevent banks around the world from conducting transactions in U.S. dollars with Russia.

The Obama administration imposed similarly broad sanctions against banks doing business with Iran and backed it up by prosecuting French bank BNP Paribas for helping clients dodge the restrictions. In late June BNP pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a record penalty of $9 billion.

The U.S. must act quickly to take advantage of international anger toward Russia, Herbst said.

“This is the perfect time to move in this direction,” he said, "but I'm not holding my breath."

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