CREDIT: AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service
For days now, the United States has been building the case against Russia’s claims that it had nothing to do with last weeks downing of a Malaysian passenger jet over Ukraine. But any slim chance that Moscow would voluntarily admit that it played a role in the MH17 crash seemed to vanish on Monday, as the Russian Defense Ministry angrily assigned blame to the Ukrainian government. All this leaves the U.S. forced to confront just what steps — if any — it can take to retaliate should Russia’s part in the crash be confirmed as fact.
As has been the norm throughout the crisis, the Kremlin has been saying one thing and then almost immediately contradicting itself in the interest of advancing its worldview. Russian president Vladimir Putin on Monday put out a statement referring to the crash as a “tragedy” before reiterating his stance that Ukraine’s military clashes with the separatist rebels in the east are to blame. Putin also declared “All those who are responsible for the situation in the region must take greater responsibility before their own peoples and before the peoples of the countries whose citizens were killed in this disaster.” At no time did he mention that the Russian Federation has been, according to the United States, arming the Ukrainian rebels and sending Russian officers to help organize them.
With all of these efforts to deflect the attention from itself, the United States finds itself in a situation that has become the norm in the months since Ukraine’s political crisis first began: facing increasingly shrinking options on how to handle a Moscow that seems hellbent on opposing Washington at every turn despite attempts to isolate the Soviet Union’s successor. Given Russia’s intransigence, here’s a few things that the U.S. can do to up the ante against Russia, without resorting to military force:
1. Pull the trigger on even stronger economic sanctions.
For months now, the U.S. has been slowly increasing sanctions on Russia, placing pressure on some of its largest banks and freezing the assets of members of Putin’s inner circle. The latest round of these sanctions was put into place on Wednesday evening, the day before MH17 crashed in Eastern Ukraine. Until now, these have been what can be called “targeted sanctions,” precisely-focused on individuals and companies. Should the evidence confirm without a doubt that Russia-backed separatists downed the flight, it’s likely that the White House will finally unleash previously threatened “sectoral sanctions” on entire industries in the Russian economy, blocking them from accessing American banks and U.S. dollars. Those areas being considered include Russia’s defense industry, as well as its oil and natural gas sector.
Such a prospect has Russian oligarchs increasingly worried, Bloomberg reported on Monday. “The economic and business elite is just in horror,” Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technology in Moscow, told Bloomberg. But those fears won’t be made public for fear of retribution, he added, saying that “any sign of rebellion and they’ll be brought to their knees.”
Dampening the chances of a strong, united push for more sanctions on Russia, however, are the strong economic ties between Western Europe and Moscow — the last set of sanctions the U.S. issued was met with a much weaker response from Europe. But there are indications that in the aftermath of MH17, some leaders are prepared to move on harsher sanctions. “In terms of sanctions, I’m very clear, having spoken to Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, that the European Union will be ready for further steps in terms of other areas of, particularly, some forms of advanced industrial goods which might have dual uses for defense purposes as well,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said over the weekend. Whether those threats are carried out remains to be seen, though, as European diplomats on Monday told Reuters that these new sanctions are “not expected to go further than agreeing on companies and people to be hit with asset freezes under a more aggressive framework agreed last week.”
2. Declare Donetsk People’s Republic and other separatist groups as terrorists — and Russia a state-sponsor of terrorism.
The U.S. has already placed leaders of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic — the territory in eastern Ukraine that has served as the main separatist stronghold — on its list of sanctions. One potential way to up the ante against these rebels, and their sponsor in Moscow, could be to label them as terrorists. The suggestion was first floated in an interview with newly named British Defense Minister Michael Fallon this weekend. “If Russia is the principal culprit, we can take further action against them and make it clear this kind of sponsored war is completely unacceptable,” Fallon said. “It is sponsored terrorism as far as people of East Ukraine are concerned. We don’t know if somebody said ‘let’s bring down a civil airliner, wherever it’s from,’ – but we need to find out.”
The U.S. and other countries could place the Donetsk People’s Republic’s leadership on their own terrorism-related sanctions lists. It’s unlikely, however, that the United Nations would approve such a designation, given Russia’s veto power on the Security Council. As for the idea of the United States naming Russia as a state-sponsor of terrorism would be a huge step for the United States, disrupting economic and diplomatic ties between Moscow and Washington more than the U.S. may be willing to bear at the moment, even in the face of MH17. As of today, only four countries — Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria — remain on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Those so listed face numerous penalties, including ” include restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance; a ban on defense exports and sales; certain controls over exports of dual use items; and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.”
3. Place travel bans on Putin and his allies.
One of the few options that ThinkProgress put on the table during the Crimea-stage crisis that wasn’t enacted is the idea of tethering Putin to Moscow. While multilateral travel bans — like declaring the DPR a terrorist group — is likely off the table at the United Nations, the U.S. can still enact unilateral travel sanctions on Putin and even more of his allies. While Putin would still be able to travel to New York for United Nations meetings, preventing the Russian president from entering U.S. territory, and marshaling European countries and other allies to do the same, would send a strong message to Putin that he is persona non-grata in the international community.
4. Boycott the World Cup and other symbolic protests against Russia.
Appearing on CBS on Sunday, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) floated several ideas for ways to punish Russia aside from economic sanctions. “For instance, I think we should talk about the World Cup,” King suggested. “Why should countries be going to Moscow?” Currently, Moscow is slated to host the quadrennial soccer tournament in 2018, leaving open the possibility of widespread protests and boycotts as were called for ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics. King also suggested penalizing airline Aeroflot, which the Russian government owns a 51 percent stake in. “Why should, for instance, Aeroflot be allowed to continue to have landing rights, so long as Putin is not allowing access to the crash site, so long as the crime scene there continues to be totally polluted,” he said.
5. Support the Netherlands’ possible war crimes investigation.
The Netherlands is home to some of the most important venues of international justice, including both the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, at The Hague. It’s only fitting then that under Dutch law, the Netherlands can prosecute any individual who has committed a war crime against a Dutch citizen, as Reuters notes. Given that 193 Dutch citizens were among the 298 people on-board MH17, Dutch prosecutors have opened up an investigation into the crash “on suspicion of murder, war crimes, and intentionally downing an airline.” One Dutch public prosecutor is currently in Ukraine, a spokesman for the prosectors’ office said. Currently, the United States and other countries have also sent small teams to Ukraine to help discern what evidence can be pulled from the wreckage. However, as President Obama noted in a sharp-toned statement on Monday, separatists have been accused of removing evidence from the scene and otherwise tampering with the crash.
Russian media has been floating various conspiracy theories as to just what happened to MH17, including that MH17 is actually MH370, that Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared into the Indian Ocean. The Russian Ministry of Defense got into the game on Monday as well, giving a rare bilingual press briefing on the crash, denying that the rebels had fired a missile at all, let alone at the Malaysian flight. “Russian air space control systems detected a Ukrainian Air Force plane, presumably an SU-25 (fighter jet), scrambling in the direction of the Malaysian Boeing,” Lieutenant-General Igor Makushev of the Russian Air Forces said. “The distance of the SU-25 plane from the Boeing was from 3 to 5 kilometres,” he said, though it’s uncertain whether Makushev was saying that the fighter jet is the one to down MH17 or if the SU-25′s flight path caused MH17 to be mistaken for a military craft.