Just hours after reports that Malaysian Airlines flight 17 had been shot down over eastern Ukraine, the stark reality that 298 civilians from nearly a dozen nations had just become the latest victims in a Russian-backed separatist movement came as somewhat of a jolt.
All were dead. Locals reported bodies falling from the sky into a field dotted with sunflowers.
It happened in a part of the world where Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the eruption of fighting in the east had already severely strained U.S.-Russia relations.
Now the downing of MH17 and the possibility that Russia could have armed and trained Ukrainian rebels to use surface-to-air weaponry needed to shoot the jet out of the sky brought new diplomatic challenges.
For the Obama administration, it was yet another test of its policy towards the Kremlin, which, along with the European Union, has relied on ramping up targeted sanctions to deter Putin.
“The developments are starting [to] unfold very quickly,” said Yuri Felshtinsky, a Russian author and historian who has close ties to some of Putin’s most vocal critics. “I think President Obama could, of course, use this opportunity to change his position drastically.”
Reset button fizzles
Six years ago, the American vision of what of U.S.-Russian relations might be was more hopeful.
Early in President Obama’s first term, the president announced he was hitting the button to reset U.S. policy towards Russia, with the goal of reversing what he called a “dangerous drift in an important bilateral relationship.”
"I think the reset was a useful idea,” said Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center and assistant director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism. “It generated tangible benefits for the U.S. and for Russia.
“Things like [a] new START [Treaty], 123 Agreement or transit to Afghanistan or [a] new round of sanctions on Iran,” he said. “These things advanced U.S. interests and Russian interests.”
From the American perspective, the point of reset was that it was better to have Russia cooperating with the United States on important national security issues than not. The thinking was that success of tricky negotations for such initiatives was far more likely.
Michael McFaul, a key architect of the reset policy who served as the American ambassador to Russia from 2012 until February of this year, was quoted as saying one of the reasons the reset initiative faded away was because “Putin decided it wasn’t in the interest of Russia the way he defines it.”
Putin calculated demonizing the United States instead of cooperating would get him what he wanted: an economically and militarily strong Russia that would take its rightful place on the world stage, according to McFaul’s published comments.
For Saradzhyan, the fizzling of the Russia reset had more to do with a dearth of common ground.
“They had picked all the low hanging fruit, and they were left with things they couldn’t agree on for years, such as missile defense,” he said.
Ukraine crisis impact
In March, the Crimea land grab rippled like a tectonic shift. How to respond to what, in essence, is a redrawing of the map of Europe?
Obama and the European Union immediately denounced Putin and slapped sanctions on members of his inner circle. Those bans have been tightened by both the U.S. and the EU, but critics say Europe’s reluctance to impose the kind of sanctions that would bite Russia’s energy sector shows the West has been weak in confronting Putin.
While there is widespread agreement among experts that Putin most likely had not planned on annexing the region, some say the Obama administration should have at least entertained the possibility once Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych fled Kiev after his refusal to sign a deal with the European Union unleashed a fury of street protests.
“Just looking at the record, it strikes me that the administration really failed at that point,” said Thomas Graham, a Russia expert who served on the National Security Council in the Bush White House and is now a managing director at Kissinger Associates, Inc.
To be caught so “flat-footed” raises some important questions about exactly where the administration was on its Russian foreign policy, Graham added.
"To what extent did the [Obama] administration, as it was dealing with Ukraine over the past year, actually think through how this would impact on Russia, what the possible Russian responses would be, and how effective those responses would be?” he asked. “And then, did they begin to think through what would be appropriate U.S. responses to whatever range of actions the Russians might take?”
Saradzhyan agrees there was a lack of foresight on the part of the Obama administration that the key moment was the end of Yanukovych’s reign.
“To have Yanukovych ousted with a fairly strong representation of anti-Russian nationalists in key posts in the interim government, that was [the] game-changing event for Putin and that's what sprang him into action,” Sarazyhan said, adding that the Russian leader has drawn very clear red lines about advancing European and NATO influence anywhere near his backyard.
Others are more forgiving, arguing that Obama has had few options in the face of Putin’s aggression.
Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European at Georgetown University, said the president is somewhat cornered. Starkly put, Ukraine is a far more important issue for Russia than it is to the United States and one where military force been ruled out, she said.
“Sanctions are the default position for the United States and they have already had an economic impact in Russia and are deterring future investment,” she said. “But there is no sign yet that they have had a political impact or have changed Russia's behavior.” While sanctions are meant to be punishing, Stent added, they rarely act as a deterrent historically.
Call to arms
But the downing of MH17 has brought a sense of urgency in the West and with it, more pressure on Obama and Europe to act. Increasingly, there are calls for the United States to support the Ukraine economically and militarily in its efforts to quell Russian-armed separatists.
McFaul raised the possibility on Twitter a few days after the crash of MH17, tweeting messages such as “If Putin can arm rebels, why can't we arm Ukraine?” and “West has to stop trying to change Putin's mind, and focus more on helping Ukraine succeed, including on the battlefield.”
Helping stabilize Ukraine would be far more effective than waiting on sanctions to force Putin to negotiate a solution to crisis, said Graham in an email following the plane crash.
“If the United States and European Union were more serious about confronting Russia over Ukraine, they would focus less energy on sanctioning Russia and more on helping to build the Ukrainian state and repair its economy,” he said, making his case in an op-ed in the Financial Times this week.
That proposition would not be quick fix, argues Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official and currently the Arleigh A. Burke Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It [the downing of the jet] gives the U.S. more leverage in mobilizing world opinion and getting support for sanctions from European allies....but the whole problem of how Russia deals with the states around it is going to go on in the future,” Cordesman said.
Rebuilding a country as plagued with deep political and economic dysfunction as Ukraine is no easy task, he added, one that would take years with no guarantee of success.
While some think the key misfire on the part of President Obama was the moment Yanukovych left his post, others say the real game-changer in U.S.-Russian relations took place on July 17.
“The MH-17 is a watershed event, which provided an opportunity for Russia to take a step back and search for a diplomatic solution,” said Ariel Cohen, principal at International Market Analysis, an energy and natural resources advisory company and a scholar at the Heritage Foundation.
“Instead, Russia chose to blame Ukraine for the downing of the Malaysian jet, protected the rebels, denied their obvious guilt, and has escalated the hostilities in Eastern Ukraine,” he said. “The West has no other options left but to either swallow Russia's behavior, or expand economic sanctions. The United States chose the latter.”