Obama Tells Europe to Step Up on Russia

It was clear from the president’s remarks about Ukraine that he now expects greater help from European allies in countering Putin.

US President Barack Obama makes a statement on Ukraine from the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, July 18, 2014. President Obama said Friday that a missile fired from rebel-held territory in Ukraine downed the Malaysian plane and that one American was among the dead. 'Their deaths are a outrage of unspeakable proportions,' Obama told reporters as he pressed for an international investigation. 
National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
July 18, 2014, 10:17 a.m.

It took a tragedy on the scale of the downed Malay­si­an air­liner to amp­li­fy what Pres­id­ent Obama and his na­tion­al-se­cur­ity team have been say­ing for months — that Europe can­not af­ford to ig­nore the wolf at the door that is Vladi­mir Putin.

Stand­ing be­fore re­port­ers in the White House brief­ing room, the pres­id­ent on Fri­day called the tragedy in east­ern Ukraine “a wake-up call” to the con­tin­ent and warned that the loss of 295 in­no­cent lives, most of them European cit­izens, proves there are “con­sequences” to what he termed an es­cal­at­ing con­flict “that is not go­ing to be loc­al­ized, it is not go­ing to be con­tained.”

Obama had an­nounced a new series of sanc­tions on Rus­si­an fin­an­cial, en­ergy, and de­fense en­tit­ies just a day be­fore a sus­pec­ted mis­sile strike took down Malay­sia Air­lines Flight 17 near Ukraine’s bor­der with Rus­sia. And, al­though the White House made a point of not­ing that the new pen­al­ties had been co­ordin­ated with the European Uni­on, the E.U. again failed to go as far as the U.S. in tar­get­ing key in­dustry sec­tors and wealthy in­dus­tri­al­ists with ties to Putin.

That has been the story since Rus­sia first seized Crimea earli­er this year: Obama tak­ing a harder line on sanc­tions, with Europe, con­cerned about the ef­fect such moves would have on its own re­gion­al eco­nom­ies, drag­ging its feet. It has been an­oth­er source of ten­sion, along with the U.S. glob­al spy­ing re­gime, between the ad­min­is­tra­tion and Ger­many, which has strong eco­nom­ic ties to Rus­sia. An­gela Merkel, the Ger­man chan­cel­lor, said Thursday that any talk of tough­er E.U. sanc­tions was “pre­ma­ture.”

But Thursday’s in­cid­ent may be chan­ging the cal­cu­lus. At a meet­ing of E.U. am­bas­sad­ors Thursday even­ing, sev­er­al mem­ber na­tions called for ramp­ing up the pen­al­ties, the Fin­an­cial Times re­por­ted, which quoted one dip­lo­mat as say­ing, “It will be easi­er [now] to get agree­ment on in­di­vidu­al meas­ures.”

A tough­er stance by Europe has long been viewed as a needed cudgel to force Putin in­to back­ing off in Ukraine. Obama has largely been re­strained in cri­ti­ciz­ing his European al­lies, al­though at a meet­ing of the G-7 in Brus­sels in June, he said he was dis­ap­poin­ted that France was go­ing ahead with a $1.6 bil­lion deal to sell war­ships to Mo­scow.

But it was clear in his first ex­ten­ded re­marks on the downed air­liner that the pres­id­ent ex­pects the out-of-the-blue at­tack on MH 17 to spur fur­ther, more severe ac­tion. He made a point, early in his re­marks Fri­day, that most of the pas­sen­gers on the plane were Dutch and that it was “des­troyed in European skies.”

The event, he noted, “sadly brings home the de­gree to which the stakes are high for Europe, not simply for the Ukrain­i­an people.”

His words came after Hil­lary Clin­ton, his former sec­ret­ary of State, urged Europe to get tough in a PBS in­ter­view Thursday. If evid­ence links Rus­sia to the mis­sile strike, Europeans should im­me­di­ately act on three counts, Clin­ton said: “One, toughen their own sanc­tions. Make it very clear there has to be a price to pay.”

Second, Clin­ton said, they needed to ac­cel­er­ate ef­forts to find al­tern­at­ives to Gazprom, the Rus­si­an state-owned gas com­pany that serves as a ma­jor en­ergy sup­pli­er to Europe. Third, she said, the E.U. needed to do more in terms of ma­ter­i­al sup­port to the Ukrain­i­ans.

“Europeans have to be the ones to take the lead on this,” Clin­ton said.

Great­er European in­volve­ment would al­low Obama some needed space in deal­ing with Putin, de­fus­ing the mano-a-mano dy­nam­ic that has marked the crisis, while al­low­ing him to prac­tice the kind of George H.W. Bush style of con­sensus-build­ing dip­lomacy he and his team fa­vors.

The hope is that the in­ter­na­tion­al out­rage, com­bined with fur­ther pen­al­ties, will fi­nally con­vince Putin that he has over­played his hand. And as ter­rible an event as the crash as was, it may ul­ti­mately mean that Obama no longer has to be the loudest voice in the room. For a White House be­sieged by chaot­ic events at home and abroad, that could come as a wel­come de­vel­op­ment, al­beit one that comes at an aw­fully high cost.

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