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.