July 18

A CAREFUL listener to President Obama’s comments Friday on the destruction of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine could discern where the president places responsibility for what he rightly called “an outrage of unspeakable proportions.”

Mr. Obama said the United States was confident that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile launched from an area controlled by Ukrainian separatists. He also said that the insurgents can’t shoot down planes “without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training, and that is coming from Russia.”

What was missing from the president’s comments was a clear moral conclusion about the regime of Vladi­mir Putin or an articulation of how the United States will respond to the killing of 298 innocent people, other than by “investigating exactly what happened and putting forward the facts.” An atrocity committed as a byproduct of Moscow’s attempt to violently break apart a sovereign nation demands a firmer response.

It’s true that not all the facts are known — for example, whether Russian personnel had a direct role in manning the SA-11 surface-to-air missile system that U.S. officials say “likely” downed the plane. A Pentagon spokesman said Friday that “it strains credulity” that the rebels could have operated a system capable of striking a high-flying airliner without Russian help. Mr. Obama was right to insist on an unhampered international investigation and a cease-fire to allow it to go forward. However, since Moscow’s proxies are already removing evidence and preventing investigators from exploring the crash site, his insistence on its own isn’t worth much. The administration needs a strategy for enforcing the president’s words.

Mr. Obama blamed Russia for continuing to stoke the rebellion in eastern Ukraine and hinted that his administration could add to the sanctions it has imposed on Moscow. But his pledge that “the United States is going to continue to lead efforts within the world community to de-escalate the situation” was at odds with the reality that he has allowed Germany and France to take over efforts to broker a cease-fire. The terms they have promoted, with implicit White House support, cater to Russia. They would create a negotiating group that included Mr. Putin’s regime and the insurgents but not Western governments, and they would not require the rebels to disarm or Russia to withdraw its mercenaries and heavy weapons. The likely result would be another of the “frozen conflicts” Russia has used to destabilize neighbors such as Georgia and Moldova.


Pro-Russian fighters walk at the site of a crashed Malaysia Airlines passenger plane near the village of Hrabove, Ukraine, eastern Ukraine Friday, July 18, 2014. (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP)

A meaningful response to the shootdown will not come from the “world community,” and it may not come from the European Union, which has been deadlocked over adopting significant sanctions. But the United States has the power to take steps, particularly in the financial sector, that could force Mr. Putin to choose between continued aggression in Ukraine and saving the Russian economy. It can also provide Ukraine with military assistance to counter Russia’s supplies to the rebels. If Mr. Obama leads, other nations are more likely to take steps, too.

Mr. Obama said that the Malaysia Airlines tragedy should be “a wake-up call” about “the consequences to an escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine.” He was speaking about the Europeans, but the message also applies to the White House. Half-steps and symbolic gestures will not stop Russia’s aggression or the atrocities it produces.