Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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As Facts About MH17 Emerge, U.S. Turns Up the Heat on Putin

by Janine Davidson
July 21, 2014

mh17-putin-obama An armed pro-Russian separatist stands guard at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), Donetsk region July 21, 2014. (Maxim Zmeyev/Courtesy Reuters)


The burden is now on Russia.” This was the conclusion of today’s statement by President Obama, as mounting evidence suggests that the MH17 tragedy and deaths of 298 passengers can be directly attributed to Russian-armed and trained rebels operating in eastern Ukraine. This terrible incident has served as a wake-up call for those who have so far been content  to look the other way as Russia plays an increasingly heavy hand in the violent conflict.

As I argue in USA Today, the next step must be a swift, measured response from both the United States and international community in order to restore stability to the region. I write:

Unfortunately, U.S. efforts to date to pressure the Russian president to end his support to the rebels and use his influence to stop the fighting in Ukraine have been met with more hand-wringing than action by American allies, who have been reluctant to follow through on previous rounds of economic sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs. More confounding still, France is on track to sell two amphibious warships to Russia.

As a result of this lack of unified resolve, Putin has acted with impunity. After annexing Crimea, Russia launched a creeping invasion of eastern Ukraine that has fueled an escalating civil war with a steady stream of lethal military aid to pro-Russian rebels. Shooting down this civilian airliner is a tragic consequence of this reckless behavior.

Clearly, the global community cannot isolate itself from further spillover from this violent conflict. The international community must support U.S. efforts to pressure Putin and support Ukraine’s defense. And the U.S. can do more in leading the way.

This can be best accomplished through a threefold strategy that incorporates NATO assistance to the Ukrainian government, harsh financial sanctions levied against Russian industry (with European support), and international diplomatic pressure. Australia is already considering banning Putin from this year’s G20 conference, to be held in Queensland.

Of course, Russia will not back down quietly. Russian state-owned media is still propagating a narrative that pins blame for the MH17 tragedy on the Ukrainian government, disavowing any involvement by Russian-backed separatists.

Events are moving quickly, and continued confrontation is likely. Let’s hope the world keeps paying attention.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I am sure V. Putin swears by the Russian equivalent of this playground lesson. I am not sure President Obama is aware of it. And I know the leaders of France, Germany and the Netherlands are choosing to ignore it.

    Frankly, I find your commentary on the past week’s revolting events in eastern Ukraine to be just so much nonsense.

    Yes, if words equated with action, I would agree that our President has “turned up the heat”, as you say, on the Russian leader. Indeed, he would be quite well roasted. But unfortunately, they do not. And furthermore, they are having at this moment the opposite effect, for Putin is a man who knows that words are for weaklings, and he is hearing a lot of them now concerning this matter from every quarter, except, I guess, his own captive news organizations.

    Sadly, for this reason we have seen from today’s developments in Europe that the downing of a civilian airliner over Ukraine by Russia is actually serving Putin’s interests (not Russia’s) by driving a wedge between NATO member countries, and revealing weaknesses in this defensive alliance. President Obama’s preference for words over actions has a great deal to do with his historic failure to hold the Atlantic alliance together at this critical point in time.

    No, Putin will not back down quietly. He will also not back down noisily. He will not back down; not without being pushed, and presently, he is the only world leader doing any pushing outside the borders of his country. He will survive being disinvited to the G20 by Australia.

    “The burden is now on Russia.” What nonsense. Does our President think he is in a courtroom, trying a case ?? Putin must think he is an idiot, talking to himself. He certainly is under no burden. Indeed, the more American and other world leaders talk like this, the more he is emboldened, for he senses their intentions to take no action to confront his behavior. This has been readily born out since the downing of this plane by the boosting of the flow of heavy armaments from Russia across the border in to Ukraine. He has decided he can not afford to lose this one, and he is going for broke.

    My prescription for unilateral action by the United States ? As follows:

    1. Ultimatum to Russia: stop supplying the Assad regime in Syria and lending money to it; and pending agreement on that deliver this notice: the Russian Navy is now persona non grata in the Mediterranean Sea. Any Russian vessel entering the Med will either be sent home or to the bottom.

    2. Extensive sectoral trade sanctions, as have been so far talked to death, starting as soon as President Obama can sign the order.

    3. Patriot anti-missile systems to Ukraine, to defend against Russian attack, with American crews, if necessary.

    4. Ultimatum to France: do not hand over control of the warships under construction to Russian crews, or else: Or else, the French will pay dearly, and wish they never had. A US travel ban on France.

    5. Reinforcement of Turkey, in support of a NATO mission to blockade Syrian ports.

    6. A US ban on travel to Russia and visa versa with limited exceptions.

    7. Ultimatum to Russia: stop flying long range bomber missions to within striking distance of America, which will be viewed as a hostile threat and dealt with accordingly.

    8. Air strikes on government and ISIS targets in Syria.

    These are the sorts of actions circumstances require. If the United States does not push back against Russia when and where it can to its advantage and with confidence, it will only add to the dangers it will face at some later time. And had the Obama administration done these things a year ago, in all likelihood, this crime would not have occurred. Without a response of this nature, NATO will be finished, and along with it, the United State’s role as a leading nation.

    R/s, TPH

  • Posted by Joshua

    I actually agree with quite a bit of what you said, but I believe its very hard to make judgements when you aren’t in the hot seat. As civilians we are not privy to the types of classified briefings the president gets every morning, so its very easy to say what should be done, but that does not mean it can be done. Most of the ultimatums you gave can not be done unilaterally by the US; as much as we’d like to believe the US is the superpower it once was, that’s simply not the case. To deal with Putin, international pressure, tantamount to that of wanted US pressure must be applied. Clearly the president is not stupid and is aware that any major conflict with Russia still holds the very real potential of ending in nuclear holocaust. I believe Putin is just bold enough to do it. This is the person that believes that the dismantaling of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, that should make anyone take pause.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Fair enough observations on all points. Also ones to which the author has given much thought that has led to conclusions.

    There are geographic, strategic, and political advantages that the United States holds over Russia throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin, And yet, two years ago, we allowed Russia to deliver long-range hypersonic cruise missiles, capable of sinking ships 300 miles away, to Syria, without so much as a complaint. The Obama administration pretended not to notice.

    The most important thing that sets the United States apart from Russia there, as elsewhere, is the fact that America has friends practically everywhere. Russia has virtually none.

    Those friendships have developed in to alliances, and with alliances comes bases, and the ability to assert power overseas. Russia has nothing of the sort anywhere outside of neighboring states which it dominates.

    Now add the geographic constraints on the exercise of Russian military power occasioned by the fact that nations friendly to the United States, and in common cause with it when it comes to Russian ambitions, control naval access to the Mediterranean at three points, and you come to this conclusion: Russia does not have a leg to stand on there.

    Now factor in the force that opposes us. As one retired naval intelligence officer has stated, “the Russian Black Sea Fleet could not stand up to the Italian Navy on a good day”.

    Query, why then do we allow Russia to supply the Assad regime with military hardware, thus enabling it to survive and fueling a regional religious and ethnic war that has given rise to a powerful multi-state terrorist organization ?

    Yes, the United States needs the help of its friends in the region to put a stop to this. But yes, it has them, and the power and influence to push them, if necessary, in the direction it wishes to go. Many will go willingly, if we would only take the lead. But the United States under the Obama administration has balked at leadership.

    No amount of privy knowledge is required to come to this conclusion. It has, moreover, been reached by many analysts with past or present “top secret” security clearances, including two who have recently resigned in protest from high Obama administration positions. And it remains a settled fact which the contents of no classified briefing can alter. At least, not for now.

    You raise the prospect that any forceful challenge to actions by Russia in this part of the world, or elsewhere, might lead to nuclear war. This observation you support with your own personal assessment that Kremlin leadership is prepared to employ Russia’s nuclear arsenal in order to achieve present objectives around the world that conflict those of the United States. Thus you suggest that the US back off out of fear of Russia.

    Are you so sure of this ? Are there no circumstances under which this concern should not be the decisive factor for US leaders ??

    What about the point under consideration ? Is it your assessment that Russia is prepared to go to war to save the Assad regime of Syria ?? Is it in fact, willing to risk one Russian life towards that end, I would ask, in reply. If so, then where are the Russian troops in Syria ? Where is the Russian naval taskforce that would challenge the United States, were it to decide with its NATO allies to pound the Assad regime in to the stone age ? Where are the Russian land-based squadrons that would have to overfly Turkey in order to reach the Mediterranean ?

    Consult your sources again. You will realize that the United States has threatened to attack Syria, and still has that action under consideration. Is there any indication that Russia would go to war with the United States to prevent this from happening ? Answer: no. Why then, do you suppose that Russia would go to war to break a naval blockade of Syria ?? And how, pray tell, could it possibly do so ?

    We are indeed in a lot of trouble, if as you caution, the man in charge of Russia is just bold enough, and crazy enough to supply the wrong answers to these questions. In that event, perhaps we should abandon NATO, our other allies in the Middle East, and all our other policy goals in that region, in addition to the modest objective of putting an end to a war which threatens to consume it.

    Yes, fair enough. But in that event, should we also allow Russian long-range bomber missions to the shores of America to continue ? And if we surrender to this fear, where is the hole big enough for us all to hide in, Joshua ?


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