President Obama appeared in the White House briefing room on Friday to deliver remarks on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. His statement included some strong and appropriate words of condemnation, calling this an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” But of course being Barack Obama–the dispassionate academic par excellence–he delivered even this expression of displeasure with all the emotion he might have put into reading a grocery list.
The potential impact of his statement was further dissipated by the fact that he said repeatedly that “our immediate focus will be on recovering those who were lost, investigating exactly what happened, and putting forward the facts.” As if this were the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 which vanished without a trace. Actually we know with a high degree of certainty what happened with flight 17: As even Obama conceded, it was shot down by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine with the help of the Russian state. As he noted, “we have confidence in saying that that shot was taken within a territory that is controlled by the Russian separatists.” Moreover, he said, “a group of separatists can’t shoot down military transport planes or, they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training. And that is coming from Russia.”
But still he refused to draw the obvious conclusion: that Russia is ultimately responsible for a war crime–the shooting down of flight 17 as well as broader aggression against Ukraine. Instead, he tried to make it appear as if there is blame all around: “Russia, these separatists, and Ukraine all have the capacity to put an end to the fighting.” That’s like blaming both Hamas and Israel equally for the fighting now going on in Gaza–an act of moral myopia that fails to recognize the culpability of an aggressor (Russia, Hamas) and the responsibility of a nation under attack (Ukraine, Israel) to respond with all due force to defend itself.
Failing to pin the responsibility on Russia as squarely as he should have done, Obama naturally failed to lay out a clear response to Russia’s aggression. He ruled out the possibility of providing any military help to Ukraine to defend itself: “We don’t see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing in working with our NATO partners and some of the Baltic States, giving them reassurances that we are prepared to do whatever is required to meet our alliance obligations.” In short, no military equipment and no advisers for Ukraine. Let them eat MREs!
He didn’t even call for “sectoral” sanctions (for example, freezing all Russian financial institutions out of the U.S. and imposing secondary sanctions on foreign firms that do business with Russia, as we’ve done with Iran)–steps that could really hurt the Russian economy. Instead he expressed satisfaction with the very limited and ineffectual sanctions announced so far: “We feel confident that at this point the sanctions that we’ve put in place are imposing a cost on Russia … I think Treasury, in consultation with our European partners, have done a good job so far on that issue.”
Really? Obama thinks the sanctions have been good so far? Admittedly a new round of measures was just announced this week so it’s too early to judge their impact, but there is no sign of Russia backing off its illegal and brazen aggression. Indeed just today Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander, released a video appearing to show a Russian Grad rocket launcher shelling Ukrainian territory.
It is wishful thinking to imagine that the shooting down of flight 17 will, by itself, cause Russia to end its attacks on Ukrainian territory. To force Russia to back off will require a massive effort on the part of the West. Admittedly Obama’s statement on Friday was only an initial stab at a response; tougher measures may be coming. But his words give little confidence that the type of massive response needed to force Russia into retreating will ever occur.