Where Obama could hurt Putin if he wanted
posted at 4:01 pm on July 21, 2014 by Noah Rothman
There has never been a weak response to a crisis that its advocates did not defend as methodical and deliberative. That is precisely what President Barack Obama’s supporters are saying about his response to the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Monday.
Four days after pro-Russian separatists used sophisticated Russian hardware to destroy a civilian airliner, killing nearly 300 mostly Western European non-combatants, the president’s strategy remains the same.
Hours after that attack, President Barack Obama refused to alter his campaign-style speech tour and fundraising schedule in order to address this crisis. Preferring instead to call it a “tragedy,” Obama stressed that the West should thoroughly investigate the incident.
On Friday, Obama repeated his demand that the attack be investigated, adding only the demand that pro-Russian separatists in control of the crash site facilitate that independent investigation. But pro-Russian rebels had already contaminated that site before Obama made this demand, and they continued to do so over the weekend.
While still refusing to alter his fundraising schedule so as not to project the impression that an ongoing international crisis was just that, Obama reiterated his unviable request for an unimpeded and impartial investigation for a third time. While he noted that Ukraine’s separatist fighters had flagrantly ignored his demands of Friday, Obama declined to outline any specific consequences for those militants or the great power which enables them.
Obama’s supporters have followed the president’s lead and are focused entirely on the investigation into this attack. The audience for that evidence, they add, are those in Europe who remain skeptical of the United States’ intelligence gathering capabilities 11 years after the invasion of Iraq.
This is fatuous, self-serving nonsense. Obama has admitted that OSCE investigators have been blocked from accessing the crash site. Flight recorders were spirited off by rebels who maintained sole authority over the site, and will only be surrendered to investigators on Monday. Some of the bodies of those who died in that attack have been repossessed by rebels at gunpoint, loaded onto a refrigerated train, and taken to an unknown location. The pro-Russian rebels’ opposition to an investigation into this attack is self-evident.
Ultimately, assuming the West’s process of indicting pro-Russian rebels in the court of world opinion is successful, the goal would then be to convince reluctant European powers to consent to imposing harsher sanctions on Moscow. The evidence already suggests that Russia was complicit in allowing this attack, certainly enough to warrant stronger measures aimed at isolating Moscow. If Europe continues to balk, it is not due to a lack of evidence that Russia is actively destabilizing eastern Ukraine.
In spite of Russia’s indirect responsibility for the shedding of European blood, E.U. nations may remain unmoved to the threat a revanchist Russia poses. The president could, if he wanted to, take measures to address Russian aggression on his own by directly targeting the personal finances of that country’s autocratic president, Vladimir Putin, and his allies.
In a Friday appearance on CNN, Michael Weiss, Interpreter Magazine’s editor-in-chief, identified how Obama could unilaterally isolate the Kremlin by adapting a strategy of sanctions aimed at the Russian economy and narrow their focus to Putin and his allies as individuals.
Weiss noted that the West can chip away at some of Putin’s credibility and sky-high approval rating among average Russians by identifying the many foreign assets he holds. He urged U.S. officials to begin by naming and targeting the foreign properties, bank accounts, and businesses in which Russian authorities expatriate Rubles. “U.S. intelligence knows where this stuff is,” Weiss said.
“Information warfare in this crisis is crucial,” Weiss added. “They’re using it to a remarkable degree, and we’re being very kittenish in how we respond.”
This would be just one prong in what would have to be a multipronged approach to the crisis in Eastern Europe but, as a compliment to a diplomatic offensive, it has the potential to be effective. Targeting Putin personally would be a way in which United States could project strength in a fashion that the president has thus far only conveyed though rhetoric.
Europe will have to be an active partner in order for any sanctions regime, but even unilateral U.S. actions which target Putin and his allies individually would be effective. They would also signal a measure of sorely lacking American leadership.