Obama to Russia: Stop supporting rebels or ... you'll be really isolated, or something

Barack Obama gave a short speech today on the attack on Malaysia Air Flight 17, in which he warned Russia to start using its influence with separatists more positively. His statement, delivered 25 minutes late, included plenty of warnings about isolation for Vladimir Putin, but zero mention of any specific consequences for the shootdown and for the obstruction of the investigation into the explosion that killed 295 people:



“Now is the time for Russia and Putin to pivot away from the strategy he been taking and get serious about” about resolving the conflict in Ukraine, Obama said in a statement Monday morning in the White House Rose Garden.

He also issued a vaguely worded threat.

My preference has and continues to be finding a diplomatic solution with regard to Ukraine, he said. “If Russia continues to back these separatists … then Russia will only further isolate itself with the international community” and increase its costs within the international community, he said.

For a live, impromptu presidential address, that’s remarkably weak sauce. Calling a presser under these conditions would normally raise expectations that a President had something significant to add in a crisis situation, which this has clearly been since Thursday. Instead, Obama added nothing at all, not even a hint about any further economic consequences as a result of Russian-backed rebel obstruction and very likely mass murder of innocent travelers in legal airspace. Even John Kerry sounded tougher than Obama in this presser, raising the question once again of what the White House is thinking when they have Obama engage without anything to say.

Compare that reaction to that of our partners in Europe. Enraged by the shootdown of a passenger airliner over Ukraine and the obstruction and obfuscation from Russia-backed separatists, the UK announced this morning that it would seek sectoral sanctions against Moscow with the EU, tightening the economic screws on Vladimir Putin:


Britain will push for EU sanctions targeting whole sectors of the Russian economy in the wake of the Ukraine plane disaster even if it means taking a short-term “hit” to the economy, its ministers said on Monday.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said “the time has now come for sanctions to be tightened further”, and stressed that inaction so far over the Ukraine crisis had “not served us well”.

EU foreign ministers meet on Tuesday to decide whether to impose sanctions if Russia does not press Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin separatists to allow access to the crash site of flight MH17 and reduce Moscow’s support for the rebels.

Canada announced that it was increasing sanctions on Russia at nearly the same time Obama was pointedly not mentioning the possibility:

Canada’s prime minister announced on Monday further economic sanctions against Russian entities and individuals, saying the downing of flight MH17 was a “direct product of Russia’s military aggression and illegal occupation” of Ukraine.

“The outrageous and criminal act of shooting down a civilian airliner last week is a direct product of Russia’s military aggression and illegal occupation of Ukraine, and demonstrates the need for the international community to continue applying pressure on the Putin regime,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement. …

“It is clear that the Putin regime’s continuing provocative military action against Ukraine, its illegal occupation of the Crimean peninsula, and its failure to end its support to armed separatist groups in eastern Ukraine constitute a threat to international peace and security,” Harper said.

He called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to order a withdrawal of his troops from its border with Ukraine, stop a flow of weapons and militants into Ukraine, urge the rebels to lay down their arms and to allow investigators access to the crash site.


Message received? Perhaps at least in part:

Pro-Russian rebels at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 have granted European monitors and experts nearly “unfettered access” to wreckage Monday, according to a spokesman for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The rebels even provided some perimeter security to keep journalists at bay, creating a “dome of tranquility” for the OSCE monitors, three Dutch forensic experts and a handful of Ukranian aviation experts now at the scene, Michael Bociurkiw said Monday in a briefing hosted by the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center.

His assessment follows a trend of improving access for monitors at the site, which is in the middle of territory held by rebels fighting Ukraine’s central government.

However, it remains difficult to get to the site, and Bociurkiw had no information about the status of a team of international crash experts staging in Kharkiv to inspect the debris.

Well, message somewhat received. Ukrainian rebels have been arresting journalists attempting to cover the looting of the crash site, including one reporter for the Daily Beast:

An hour had passed by since our detention; we still did not know if we, two female writers and one male writer from American and European publications, were doomed to spend our Sunday and who knows how many more days in jail.

Our interrogators, a group of militiamen from the security service of the Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR, as it’s known, wanted to tell us why America is to blame for the civil war tearing apart town after town in Donbass, the eastern Ukraine.

The rebels are not alone in these beliefs. Many people in pro-Russian Donbass are convinced that the United States orchestrated the anti-Russian revolution in Kiev, supported Ukrainian military forces fighting the war against pro-Russian separatist troops; and now it is America accusing them of shooting down the Malaysian Boeing 777 on Thursday that cost the lives of almost 300 innocent people.

For four days, the militia of the self-proclaimed republic has been collecting “evidence” to prove that it was a Ukrainian missile that shot down the plane, so that the world would believe them, they told us. But, the rebels wondered aloud: Where were the Americans? Why didn’t they come to Donetsk to see for themselves? Then the rebels answered their own questions: “Because America hates us.”


It takes an impressive level of chutzpah to keep investigators out of the crash site at gunpoint, arrest American journalists (and others), and then complain that America hasn’t shown up to see the site for themselves. The so-called “pro-Russian separatists” must feel what little sympathy they had received earlier entirely evaporating, so they are contenting themselves with fantasies of an American war being raged in eastern Ukraine while demanding that Americans arrive. John Kerry accused them of being drunkards yesterday, which might explain the cognitive dissonance:

Drunk or not, they’re on the losing side of the propaganda war. They may already have absconded with evidence on the ground, and their determination to keep experts out of the debris field certainly gives the appearance of known guilt in the shootdown. The US has not moved on sanctions yet, but claims to be collecting evidence of rebel complicity in the attack — with Russian help:

The Obama administration expanded its case Sunday accusing Ukrainian separatists and Russian forces of working hand in hand to acquire and operate a missile battery believed to have shot down a Malaysia Airlines jetliner last week, killing nearly 300 people.

Citing an “enormous amount of evidence,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry accused Russia of providing SA-11 antiaircraft missiles to the pro-Russian rebels and training them how to fire the advanced weapons. He also said U.S. intelligence agencies “saw the launch” of a missile from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine and recorded its trajectory at the moment the passenger plane vanished from radar.

Meanwhile, in Kiev, the U.S. Embassy said American intelligence analysts had confirmed the authenticity of recorded conversations in which rebel leaders bragged about shooting down what they thought was a Ukrainian military transport plane moments after the Malaysian jetliner was blown apart. The Ukrainian government had previously aired the audio excerpts, but the U.S. statement vouching for their reliability buttressed the charges against the rebels.


For their part, Russia claims that no missile was launched at the time from the ground, and they want the US to share its satellite data to test its claims. Moscow categorically denies supplying any Buk systems to the rebels, but now claims that a Ukrainian military fighter flew in close proximity to MH17 and demands an explanation. That seems pretty unlikely, though, as the rebels don’t have an air force and any plane at 33,000 feet over eastern Ukraine and heading southeast would pose no threat to Ukraine anyway. Anything Ukraine puts up in the air is much more likely looking for ground targets, not air threats, and certainly not at 33,000 feet.

The escalation of sanctions is the strongest step the West can take short of war, and sectoral sanctions will hit Putin where it counts: in his oligarchy. The economic barons of Russia have done well by Putin, but how long will they stick with him when they find that they can’t access Western markets or even travel in the West any longer? When the balance sheets start turning red, perhaps Russians might start thinking about just how red they really want to be.

Of course, they’ll have to openly revolt, and the Daily Mail says they’re not quite ready for that:

According to Igor Bunin, who heads the Center for Political Technology in Moscow, Russia’s businessmen may be scared of the sanctions but they are even more scared of Putin.

Mr Bunin told Bloomberg.com: ‘The economic and business elite is just in horror.

‘Nobody will speak out because of the implicit threat of retribution… Any sign of rebellion and they’ll be brought to their knees.’


They helped build the monster, and eventually they’ll have to dismantle him. Without the oligarchs and a decent economy, Putin can only survive for so long on brute strength.

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David Strom 5:30 PM | June 18, 2024