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MH17 is a tragedy, not a game-changer

- July 21, 2014

In the aftermath of the tragic shootdown of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine, Western analysts and officials, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), were quick to speculate that this most recent catastrophe serves as a “game changer” in the ongoing struggle.  Some argued Europeans would now recognize that the conflict was not in some faraway locale and would join the United States to enact stiffer sanctions against Russia. Others suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin would now abandon the separatists battling the Ukrainian government, a very large problem that he created.

Unfortunately, Putin’s objectives in Ukraine remain the same in the aftermath of the shootdown: prevent the government in Kiev from being successful, including by reducing corruption and introducing greater rule of law in order to move closer to the European Union.  Putin wants instability, not stability, in Ukraine.  He does not accept the post-Cold War order that emerged across Europe, with much of the continent joining NATO and the EU, and he has made clear that he will do what he can to ensure these institutions do not expand further east.

For Putin, Ukraine is a vital national security interest. Not so for the United States and Europe, and he knows it.  The sanctions will hurt – already they have made an impact on the Russian economy – and the latest round of U.S. sanctions, announced the night before the plane crash, will make access to financing far more difficult for companies like Rosneft that were included among the most recent list. But Putin seems to have calculated that he can withstand the pain longer than we are willing to inflict it, and he is likely betting on the inability of the Ukrainian government to use Western assistance effectively, which will lead to frustration in Europe and in the United States and may eventually cause the new Poroshenko government to approach Russia in need of assistance.

Moreover, as time passes, it will become increasingly difficult for the United States to retain Europe’s support for tougher sanctions.  Europe’s extensive business interests and massive energy needs will make it politically difficult for leaders to maintain a tough line on Russia for an extended period.  We have already observed French President François Hollande’s reticence to abandon the sale of the Mistral-class warship to Moscow for domestic political and economic reasons.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been impressively angry with Putin, but faces significant domestic business opposition to a tougher approach.

Western Europeans perceive Ukraine’s plight to be a faraway crisis, and the MH17 shootdown will do little to alter that.  Moreover, while the separatists may prove difficult for Moscow to control, their ability to keep the government in Kiev off balance is Putin’s objective.  The Russian president has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to ensuring former Soviet states like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova fail in their quests to form closer ties to Europe, and sanctions alone will do little to transform or end Putin’s course.

Outrage is building steadily against Putin in the aftermath of the shootdown, particularly as access to the site was blocked.  But the public opinion the Russian president cares about is inside not outside his country, and events in Ukraine have brought his popularity to levels Putin had not enjoyed in quite some time.

James Goldgeier is dean of the School of International Service at American University.  You can follow him on Twitter @JimGoldgeier.

Past Monkey Cage posts on developments in Ukraine, Russia and Crimea can be found by clicking here. Recent posts include:

Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich: Why the Ukraine separatists screwed up
Joshua Rovner: Putin’s Grand Strategy is Failing
Ivan Katchanovski: What do citizens of Ukraine actually think about secession?
Oxana Shevel: Will the Malaysia Airlines tragedy change the trajectory of events in Ukraine?
Austin Long: Was the downing of the Malaysian Air flight accidental?
Henry Farrell: Europe may get a lot tougher on Russia sanctions