Clemens Bilan / AFP / Getty Images

Attack on Flight 17 brings Ukraine crisis to Europe’s doorstep

More than 200 European citizens were killed when a Russian missile struck the passenger jet

An international investigation is underway to determine who fired a Russian-made missile at Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday, blowing the passenger jet out of the sky and killing all 298 people on board. But with Washington's statements on Friday that the missile came from an area in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists, the West seems to have made up its mind about the culpable party.

If it’s true that Russia or its separatist proxies in Ukraine are responsible for downing Flight 17, the tragedy will vindicate Kiev’s insistence that crushing the separatists in Ukraine’s east — where Flight 17’s wreckage is scattered — is not only a Ukrainian imperative but a regional one. After months of waffling and divisions among European leaders about how to deal with perceived Russian aggression in Ukraine, many feel it’s time for action.

“There are consequences to escalated conflict in Ukraine. It’s not localized. It’s not going to be contained,” President Barack Obama said in an address at the White House on Friday. The loss of more than 200 Europeans, he said, “sadly brings home that the stakes are high for Europe, not just for the Ukrainian people.”

Washington and Kiev have long been frustrated with their European allies’ tepid response to the crisis, which has permitted the Russian-armed separatist uprising to expand unabated for months. Since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March, European leaders have hesitated to give Moscow much more than a slap on the wrist, in part because Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to close the pipeline from Russia that supplies 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas but also because provoking a full-on Russian invasion into Ukraine could set off a regional conflict in the European Union’s backyard.

But if ever there was a window for Europe to reverse course and punish a country it counts among its most crucial trading partners, the downing of a civilian airplane with 200 Europeans on board could be it.

Ukraine’s leaders certainly hope so. No sooner had the plane crashed than Kiev lawmakers deduced that months of war were spiraling into something far graver — a questionable position if Flight 17’s crash was accidental.

“This is not just a local conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk but a full-scale war in the center of Europe,” Vitali Klitschko, Kiev’s mayor, said on Ukrainian television Thursday night. “I’m certain the international community this time will pay attention and understand.”

But U.S. lawmakers have also begun to pile public pressure on their European allies, calling on them to at least match the already biting American sanctions. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forced the spotlight onto Europe Thursday night, telling PBS in an interview that “outrage” should fill the halls of Europe’s capitals. “If there is evidence linking Russia to this, that should inspire the Europeans to do much more.”

The U.S., which has icier ties to Moscow and is much less invested in Russia’s economy, has taken a harder line in the Ukraine showdown. On Wednesday the Obama administration compounded its sanctions against Russia with new measures that targeted key financial, energy and defense companies — the farthest-reaching measures to date.

European leaders indicated they would consider expediting and widening the EU’s latest round of sanctions against Russian oligarchs and companies, announced earlier this week. But apart from a shared outrage over Flight 17, it was too early to tell whether the suspected tragic overreach by Ukraine’s rebels would push Europe to the brink.

“The only thing we know for sure is that this is a turning point,” said Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe expert with the German-Marshall Fund in Berlin. “This will turn public and political opinion against Russia in a way that we haven’t seen in this conflict so far.”

Perhaps realizing he could be in even hotter water over his alleged support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, Putin indirectly blamed Kiev in a statement Thursday, saying, “This tragedy would not have happened if there was peace in the country, if military operations had not resumed in the southeast of Ukraine.”

But world leaders, even those who have tacitly supported Putin during the Ukraine episode, have grown weary of that narrative. Long-simmering outrage against his brazen aggression there may have reached a boil among leaders of countries that lost lives aboard Flight 17. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, mourning the loss of 27 citizens in Thursday’s attack, called Putin’s casting of blame “deeply, deeply unsatisfactory.”

Even China, which has offered tacit support on the United Nations Security Council and refrained from vetoing the U.N. resolution to declare Russia’s annexation of Crimea illegal, may seek to distance itself from a Russian-backed attack — even if inadvertent — on an Asian airliner, Forbrig noted.

After weeks of indicating he might be ready to abandon the separatists to their fate in the face of Kiev’s emboldened “counterterrorist” operation, Putin appeared to reverse course the past couple of weeks, upping military support and diplomatic efforts for the rebels. In a meeting in Berlin earlier this month, Moscow sought to convince France and Germany that an urgent cease-fire was needed, shifting focus from Kiev’s insistence that putting proper controls on the Ukraine-Russia border — across which fighters and arms flow freely — was a top priority.

Russia’s ultimate goal now, as ever, is anyone’s guess. Putin’s momentum has unraveled since Flight 17 was downed, analysts say, though they are split on what that means for violence on the ground.

“The Russians wanted something similar to Transnistria or Abkhazia,” said Forbrig, referring to the ethnic-Russian breakaway regions in Moldova and Georgia where Russian “peacekeeping forces” control security. “Basically, they’ve been systematically building up the case for a peacekeeping invasion of Ukraine. That’ll change as of today.”

Putin on Friday reiterated the call for a cease-fire, which all sides seem to support. But the stakes could be much higher this time around if cease-fire talks collapse again. If Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has held back at all in his counterterrorist operation, wary of drawing a Russian invasion from the east, he may recalculate his strategy after the Flight 17 attack.

“This really makes it impossible for Poroshenko to not take action more decisively in Donetsk and Luhansk. How could he not?” said Ian Bremmer, president of the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, in an interview with Bloomberg. “That means a much more bloody account between Ukrainians and Russians and certainly makes it much more likely that the Russian hand directly would respond to that.”

On the other hand, Flight 17 could punctuate for Putin that his venture in Ukraine, which initially had the effect of pulling Ukraine away from Europe, has badly backfired. As the West piles on sanctions and the separatists prove more and more difficult to control, the Russian leader could be ready for the long-discussed exit ramp.

In the coming days, according to Tim Frye, a professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University, Putin will be “recalculating whether [the rebels] are more of an asset or a liability.”

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