While the cable channels were exploding in speculation from one panel of experts after another Thursday following the Malaysian airliner tragedy, the most cautious public reactions came from President Obama and Speaker John Boehner. Both were low-key. The president spoke of finding out “what happened and why.” The speaker called for prayers while “we await the facts.”
The caution was for good reason. Almost always in such incidents, the immediate certainties prove wrong. When a bomb downed Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, for example, U.S. intelligence initially was convinced that Syria was to blame. It turned out to be Libya. Both Obama and Boehner understand the scarcity of American intelligence resources in the section of Ukraine where the plane fell to the ground and they understand that it may take some time to ascertain exactly what happened and who fired the fatal missile.
But even as the world waits for those answers, it is not too early to conclude that the potential impact on the war over Ukraine is great. Already, backers of the Kiev government believe the incident has placed Russian President Vladimir Putin on the defensive and brought home the reality that the separatists are fighting with weapons given them by Russia.
“This can change the narrative of the conflict being solely a homegrown separatist movement and a narrative mainly written by Russia to an opportunity for Ukraine and the West to show that Russia is manufacturing much of the conflict and thus needs to be thwarted,” said Roman Popadiuk, the first American ambassador to Ukraine after the country became independent. “From a PR perspective, this could be a game changer,” he told National Journal.
Anthony H. Cordesman, the former director of intelligence assessment for the secretary of Defense and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is more cautious. He said people already should have known that Russia had given surface-to-air missiles to the rebels since they had already shot down two Ukrainian planes. Citing the Lockerbie precedent, he said “there is reason here for patience.” He also doubted that the situation on the ground in Ukraine had changed much in the hours after the plane was shot down.
“We’ve forgotten that the morning began with concern that the Russians had moved 12,000 troops back to the border, which may or may not be affected by the airliner crash. But, certainly, it won’t have changed instantaneously,” he said.
Already, though, Popadiuk sees the potential for changes that would be important diplomatically and for Obama’s efforts to rally the West to stand stronger against Putin through sanctions. The downing of the plane, said Popadiuk, “will further unite the Ukrainians and also embolden the Ukrainian military since it will show the world that Ukraine is not just facing a separatist issue but also fighting a shadow war against Russia.” Additionally, he said, it “will put pressure on the West to come up with more sanctions in a quicker time frame…. And it may start changing public opinion in Western countries to a more pro-Ukrainian position, which will make their governments’ decisions on sanctions much easier.”
It is too early to know, but if the pressure on Moscow does increase because of this, there could be more pressure by Putin on the separatists to engage in negotiations with Kiev and there may be more of a move on Capitol Hill to grant Ukraine’s request for more defensive military equipment and aid. That will not be clear, though, until the smoke clears from the crash and American intelligence gathers enough answers that Obama and Boehner can safely move beyond the safe generalities of Thursday.