James Goldgeier is dean of the School of International Service at American University. You can follow him on Twitter @JimGoldgeier.
While many have hoped that the tragic shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 would provide an opening to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, it appears far more likely that the conflict will continue, given the costs to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic and foreign policy strategy of abandoning his efforts in Ukraine and, perhaps more significantly, the lack of appetite in the West to force Putin to end his mission to destabilize Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.
In addition to the oft-noted problem of Europe’s reluctance to go too far in punishing Putin, two other issues persist that hamper the West’s ability to alter Russia’s strategy on Ukraine. First, the West remains unwilling to support Ukraine militarily out of fear that the conflict will escalate into a direct war with Russia. But as long as the situation remains relatively unchanged on the ground, Putin has no reason to push for an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Two decades ago, the West faced this challenge in Bosnia. The war had persisted for several years until the summer of 1995, when NATO began bombing Serb forces from the air in the aftermath of the massacre at Srebrenica, and the Croat forces began advancing on the ground. Only then was Serb leader Slobodan Milošević willing to negotiate.
The West will not use force against Russia, and this significantly reduces our leverage.
Second, there is little at stake in the worst relationship between the United States and Russia in 30 years. While many derided the reset, both sides achieved significant advantages in the first Obama term. The Russians got an arms control treaty they wanted, as well as the abandonment of the Bush administration’s missile defense plan (albeit in favor of a new one) and a clear indication that the United States was in no hurry to promote NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. The Obama administration, meanwhile, got Russian approval for a new supply corridor into Afghanistan and stiffer sanctions against Iran.
Today, neither side has much to lose in the relationship – there is almost nothing of substance within it. There is talk that Russia could thwart the nuclear deal with Iran, but Iran can do that without Moscow’s help if it wants to. The United States does not share Europe’s extensive business interests and massive energy dependence on Russia, and so the foundering U.S.-Russia relationship is easier to abandon than the mutually beneficial financial ties between Europe and Russia.
Despite the recent talk that the shootdown would serve as a “game-changer,” such changes in direction take place when all sides peer over the brink and urgently retreat to avoid the abyss, as occurred after the U-2 plane shootdown over Cuba in October 1962 during the Missile Crisis. That is not the case in Ukraine, despite the tragic loss of nearly 300. Instead, and quite sadly, the conflict will likely continue despite all of the rhetoric from observers in the West.
The reprehensible shootdown of MH17 has been deemed a wake-up call, and there is certainly more outrage expressed on the opinion pages across Europe over the conflict in Ukraine than there had been previously. But we are still some ways away from putting the kind of pressure on Putin that would lead him to abandon his strategy of fomenting instability in Ukraine to prevent that country’s ability to succeed in drawing closer to Europe.
James Goldgeier: MH17 is a tragedy, not a game-changer
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Joshua Rovner: Putin’s Grand Strategy is Failing
Ivan Katchanovski: What do citizens of Ukraine actually think about secession?