The Malaysian Air Shoot Down Changes Nothing: America Cannot Save Ukraine

The agony of the families of the 298 people who died on flight MH17 lives on.  Fighting has prevented Dutch personnel from reaching the crash site.  However, despite calls for stronger action against Russia and its separatist clients in Ukraine, the tragic shoot down changed nothing in practice. 

American intelligence reportedly concluded that Russian separatists misjudged the flight for a Ukrainian military plane, which seems most likely.  If so, then what to do?

The bodies were still warm in Ukraine when America’s hawks began stiring the war machine.  Said Sen. John McCain:  involvement of Russia or Russian separatists in the plane shoot down “would open the gates for us assisting, finally, giving the Ukrainians some defensive weapons [and] sanctions that would be imposed as a result of that.  That would be the beginning.” 

The better answer, however, remains to do largely nothing.  The MH17 incident, while outrageous, actually is no trigger for anything.  Errant attacks on civilians, while always tragic, are not unusual.

However, in none of the earlier cases did an accidental or erroneous shoot down act as a casus belli.  Not once did much of anything happen.  Even during the Cold War such incidents were resolved peacefully.  The U.S. has no more cause than before for extensive involvement in the Ukraine imbroglio. 

Of course, Moscow’s geopolitical machinations are to be deplored.  But Russia is no Soviet Union and Vladimir Putin is no Joseph Stalin.  Unlike the U.S.S.R., Russia represents no ideological or military threat to America.

In fact, Putin’s Russia appears to have reverted to a traditional great power, concerned about international respect and border security.  Its ambitions are fierce, but bounded. 

Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, like the former’s war against Georgia, is consistent if unfortunate.   But such action isn’t likely to lead much further.  Indeed, Moscow apparently has no interest in swallowing Ukraine, with a majority of non-Russians (in contrast to Crimea), just like it did not absorb Georgia.  Aggression further west is even less likely.

President Barack Obama correctly dismissed the threat posed by Moscow:  “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.” 

The situation facing Ukraine is tragic, but not one of strategic significance to America.  The U.S. never viewed Kiev’s independence as important, let alone vital, when facing the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. 

Kiev’s situation is even less so today.  As I point out in National Interest:  “Washington has no security reason to confront Russia militarily, or to risk escalation to military action, over Moscow’s treatment of Ukraine.” 

The Ukrainians deserve sympathy, of course.  Moreover, diplomatic as well as economic pressure to constrain Russian misbehavior is warranted.  However, such efforts should be have a purpose other than punishment.  It would be a mistake to rupture relations with a country that could do much to impede or advance more substantial American objectives elsewhere—Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, North Korea, and more. 

More broadly, it is time for Europe to take over responsibility for its own defense.  Russia’s economic and military strength is dwarfed by Europe, which possesses an economy eight times the size of Russia’s and a population three times as great.  The Ukraine crisis is primarily a problem for Brussels, not Washington.

The conflict in the Ukraine is a human tragedy.  However, the U.S. has little cause for leading an international campaign against Moscow.  Instead, let Europe take the lead in putting its security and prosperity on the line.