The downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine could be a turning point for the Ukraine crisis, if it convinces reluctant Europeans to get behind tougher “sectoral” sanctions long-sought by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Although it’s unclear exactly who was behind the apparent ground-launched missile that destroyed the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, US allies who have tried to occupy the middle ground in the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War may now support bolder action to end the fighting in Ukraine.
“Some people thought Ukraine didn’t have anything to do with them. They are now discovering their error,” one senior U.S. official said, adding that this could shatter the view in some European capitals that the conflict was largely contained.
Current and former U.S. officials, as well as independent analysts, say the tragedy would sharpen global attention on Ukraine’s raging separatist conflict and Moscow’s role in fueling it. That, in turn, could be a catalyst for stronger sanctions that could inflict real damage on Russia’s economy.
The European Union’s reticence over tougher sanctions reflects concerns among many of its member states about trade and industrial ties with Moscow and heavy reliance on Russian energy. But with more than half of the nearly 300 people killed in the downing of the plane Dutch citizens, and more than a dozen more from other EU nations, that could change.
There is also hope in Washington that Russian President Vladimir Putin, faced with possibly the worst unintended consequences of the Ukrainian crisis, may experience what one U.S. official described as a “moment of sanity” and work to stop the violence in majority Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine.
“This could be a tipping point,” said Sam Charap, a former U.S. State Department official and now senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington.
“It could be just what it takes to make the Russians step back,” he said. “This is just what Putin didn’t want but it’s the kind of scenario that becomes much more likely when you give a lot of undertrained and unreliable people sophisticated weaponry.”
Putin could also draw a completely different lesson and decide that, with U.S.-Russian relations already at a post-Cold War low, he has little to lose in defying Western pressure and instead increase support for the rebels, the officials said.
Much would depend on the level of public outrage over the destruction of the plane, and any evidence of involvement by pro-Russian separatists.
Ukraine accused the pro-Moscow militants, aided by Russian military intelligence officers, of firing a long-range, Soviet-era SA-11 ground-to-air missile. The separatists have said they took control of such a missile system last month and used it to shoot down a Ukrainian military transport plane on Monday.
The rebels denied involvement in Thursday’s crash and said a Ukrainian air force jet had brought down the flight.