In Ukraine, U.S. Is Still Waiting on Europe to Pressure Russia

The White House is hoping European nations will ditch economic concerns and act in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines crash.

An improvised Ukrainian flag is attached to a car antenna, in front of a giant flag reading "Ukraine United" covering a building site in Kiev on July 2.
National Journal
Marina Koren
July 21, 2014, 6:01 a.m.

After its own ef­forts to pull Rus­sia out of Ukraine with sanc­tions proved in­ef­fec­tu­al, the United States really needs Europe to pick up the phone.

After fir­ing off an­oth­er series of sanc­tions against Rus­si­an banks and en­ergy and de­fense com­pan­ies, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is look­ing to European na­tions to im­pose the next round of pres­sure on Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin, es­pe­cially fol­low­ing the down­ing of a ci­vil­ian jet­liner in Ukraine that killed all 298 people on board.

The crash of Malay­sia Air­lines Flight 17, Pres­id­ent Obama said Thursday dur­ing a press con­fer­ence, should be “a wake-up call to Europe and to the world.” Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry echoed the pres­id­ent’s words dur­ing ap­pear­ances on Sunday talk shows. “We hope this is a wake-up call for some coun­tries in Europe that have been re­luct­ant to move,” he said on CBS.

In short, it’s your turn, Europe.

The U.S. has been try­ing for months to per­suade the European Uni­on to im­pose high­er costs on Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion in Ukraine. The latest sanc­tions came after the E.U. couldn’t agree on new stricter pun­ish­ments. The U.S. has more free­dom to hit Rus­si­an sec­tors, es­pe­cially eco­nom­ic and en­ergy ones, than its al­lies across the pond. Four per­cent of Rus­sia’s trade is with the U.S., while 50 per­cent is with Europe. Europe also de­pends on Rus­sia for about a third of its gas ex­ports. Less Amer­ic­an in­flu­ence in the Rus­si­an eco­nomy, however, also means that U.S. sanc­tions have not been very suc­cess­ful, es­pe­cially without European sup­port.

U.S. of­fi­cials hope that last week’s plane crash — and the res­ult­ing in­ter­na­tion­al out­cry over the tragedy — presents a mor­al case to act, and gal­van­izes European re­sponse to Rus­si­an in­ter­ven­tion in Ukraine. The Neth­er­lands, which suffered the most cas­u­al­ties, and Ger­many, are now giv­ing Putin “one last chance” to re­solve the Ukraine crisis. If Rus­sia is found to be re­spons­ible, Bri­tain says it “can take fur­ther ac­tion against them and make it clear this kind of sponsored war is com­pletely un­ac­cept­able.”

The tim­ing for more European ac­tion is un­cer­tain, but some na­tions have privately shif­ted their stance in re­cent weeks. European dip­lo­mats tell Bloomberg that some na­tions, such as Italy, are be­com­ing less re­luct­ant to strike against Rus­sia. The United King­dom is push­ing the E.U. to sanc­tion the en­tire Rus­si­an de­fense in­dustry. For the first time, for­eign min­is­ters are con­sid­er­ing black­list­ing Rus­si­an com­pan­ies ac­cused of profit­ing from civil un­rest in Ukraine.

Last week’s plane crash could in­deed bring E.U. sanc­tions. But it could also delay them. Europe, which suffered the greatest hu­man loss in the crash, now needs Mo­scow’s help to prop­erly in­vest­ig­ate the ac­ci­dent site and re­trieve the bod­ies of the vic­tims. In the days since the plane was struck down, pro-Rus­si­an sep­ar­at­ists be­lieved to be re­spons­ible for the ac­ci­dent have re­trieved some of the bod­ies and blocked re­cov­ery work­ers from the crash site. An in­ter­na­tion­al in­vest­ig­a­tion of what blew MH17 out of the sky de­pends on the co­oper­a­tion of the rebels, which trans­lates in­to co­oper­a­tion by Putin. If isol­at­ing Putin was a bad idea for European in­terests be­fore, it’s cer­tainly worse now.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion wants Europe to wake up and present a united front against Rus­sia in the af­ter­math of the plane crash and con­tin­ued con­flict in east­ern Ukraine. For at least the im­me­di­ate fu­ture, Europe may let the phone ring for a little longer.

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