Could Shooting Down Two More Planes Change the Game in Ukraine?

Could Shooting Down Two More Planes Change the Game in Ukraine?

How many game changers will it take to change the game? That was my reaction to the news that the Putin-backed rebels have apparently shot down more planes, this time two Ukrainian fighter jets.

The shoot-down of MH17 was a potential game-changer, but so far President Obama has responded with an abundance of caution, and our European allies have been even more restrained. Indeed, so far the game looks very much like what was playing hitherto: 

  1. Tough talk from Obama national security principals undercut by softer rhetoric from the president, and softer-still action from the administration as a whole; 
  2. a cacophony of conflicting rhetoric from the Europeans;
  3. the drawing of a new line in the sand with the promise that if further provocative action is taken by Putin and his proxies, then perhaps Europe will respond with tougher sanctions;
  4. new provocative action taken by Putin and his proxies;
  5. repeat.

The dominant feature of this game is that the United States leads it from behind, by which I mean that the upper bound of the response is set by the most cautious of the major European allies, either separately (as in the case of France, which wants to keep its arms deals with Russia, or Germany, which wants to keep its gas deals with Russia) or collectively, in the form of a least-common-denominator European response.  The U.S. response may be a bit more vigorous, but not by much and always tethered to the European response.  

There is a good reason for this: Multilateral sanctions will be far more effective than unilateral sanctions, and if the United States gets too far out in front it may create opportunities for Putin to divide the alliance.  But there may also be a bad reason for this: The Obama administration may simply be unable to lead the alliance towards a tougher response.  And there may even be a worse reason: Perhaps the President himself prefers not to change the game.

While it is likely Russia is feeling more pressure today than it felt a month ago, it is also true that Ukraine is in a much more perilous position today than it was a month ago.  So it is not clear how long the game can continue in this way.

My former boss, Steve Hadley, has proposed a sensible action plan for getting out of the hole we are now in.  The chief problem with his plan is that it requires President Obama to lead in a game-changing way.  

Based on the latest reporting, it is not clear the White House thinks they are mismanaging the various crises confronting them.  When the White House foreign policy spokesman dismisses criticisms with boasts about the "the longer run plays that we’re running," and when the White House spokesperson touts how the administration’s policies have "improved the tranquility of the global community," then it may be that the Obama team thinks it is winning. And so long as they think they are winning, why would they change anything?