- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
If the tragic downing of the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane that was flying over contested territory along the Ukraine-Russia border was caused by missile fire — and not by mechanical failure or some other cause unrelated to the Ukrainian conflict — it is a game changer.
But in which direction the game is changed depends on whether this was (a) an accident by Ukrainian forces, or (b) an accident by Russian or pro-Russian forces, or (c) an intentional act, in which case pro-Russian rebels would be most likely culprits (since it is hard to come up with a reason why Ukraine or Russia would intend something like this). Accidents like this happen (see here or here), but when they do they change the game politically.
Some game-changing aspects are likely, regardless of who is at fault. First, President Obama cannot pretend that his hitherto light-touch approach has been working — indeed, he already conceded it was not by ratcheting up sanctions. Second, Obama will now have an even harder time distancing himself from the conflict — i.e., hoping that an arms-length quarantine can keep the problems contained.
If Ukraine is at fault, then Obama’s options of response are more limited: mainly reinvigorating efforts at negotiation. If Russia or pro-Russian forces are at fault, we will likely see much greater pressure to ratchet up sanctions even more significantly than has happened thus far, albeit in conjunction with reinvigorated efforts along the diplomatic track. Moreover, if Russia or pro-Russian forces are at fault, this puts Putin on the defensive to the point where a meaningful retreat is plausible — not a retreat from Crimea, which appears to be lost, but a retreat on Eastern Ukrainian pressure points — provided that Obama does in fact re-engage at a level commensurate with the stakes.