Is the downing of Flight MH17 a Ukranian game-changer?

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The conventional wisdom about the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet over Ukraine seems to have emerged. John McCain expressed it this way: “If the Malaysian plane was shot down, this is obviously a game changer.” McCain continued, “if it is the result of either separatist or Russian actions mistakenly believing this was a Ukrainian war plane, I think there’s going to be hell to pay.”

Various experts quoted in this article by Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post offer a similar take. The downing of the aircraft “could dramatically broaden the Ukrainian crisis, even before it is determined who bears responsibility,” DeYoung concludes.

Anything is possible, but I’d be surprised if there is “hell to pay” for what almost certainly is the shooting down of the Malaysian plane — and the resulting death of nearly 300 people including, presumably, some Americans — by Russian backed, Russian armed separatists. Indeed, it’s far from clear that this tragedy will have any appreciable long-term impact on events in Eastern Ukraine.

The pre-existing dynamic in Eastern Ukraine was based on two main realities. First, Europe is economically intertwined with Russia and does not want to rock that boat. Second, President Obama does not wish to risk any level of military engagement with Russia.

The shooting down of the Malaysian plane does not alter these realities. It’s pretty clear that the shooters did not intend to down a commercial airline. Their initial boasting about the incident shows that they believed they were attacking a military cargo plane.

In all likelihood, neither Europe nor the United States under Obama will fundamentally alter behavior towards Russia based on the unintended killing of civilian air passengers.

How then will Europe and the U.S. react? With plenty of expressions of outrage and a token escalation of economic sanctions — that’s my guess.

Putin and the separatists will deny responsibility for the shooting, and it may prove difficult comprehensively to rule out their denials. If so, this will provide Obama with a pretext for not taking action that comes anywhere close to constituting “hell to pay.” If not, Obama still will not take such action.

For their part, the separatists, under orders from Moscow, will probably stop shooting down airplanes.

What would a “hell to pay” response look like? The U.S. could help the Ukrainian government attack the separatists and drive them out of the country. Ukraine’s army has already had some success against the separatist forces. With significantly greater U.S. backing, they would have significantly greater success.

Smarting from criticism over the attack on the passenger jet and not wanting a military confrontation with the U.S., Putin would be unlikely to send regular Russian troops into battle. Instead, he would probably accept the temporary defeat of the separatists and wait to resume the fight another day.

But the risk that Putin would escalate the fight means that Obama’s response to yesterday’s tragedy probably will be confined to talk and a few more sanctions.

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