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Putin, Europe, and America

Debris from the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17
Debris from the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17
Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Q: If a Russian missile is fired from a Russian launcher provided by Russia, who is responsible?

A: According to Putin, the correct answer is “Ukraine." — Andy Borowitz

International investigators have yet to determine officially what or who brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, but in the global court of public opinion, the verdict is clear.

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, is guilty.

Putin, denying the obvious, blames Ukraine, presumably because the legitimate government of that former Soviet republic refuses to accede to the demands of pro-Russian separatists. In Putinesque logic, Ukraine is responsible for the missile that hit the airliner because its government refuses to accede to further partition of the country. After losing Crimea to Russian revanchism, the Ukrainians are unwilling to accept the demands of the separatists and of Putin.

Putin, who longs for the good, old days of Soviet power, has gone too far… this time. International opinion is coalescing quickly around the notion of Russian responsibility and the need for taking action against Putin’s government. Australia has suggested banning the Russian president from an upcoming meeting of the Group of 20, an organization of the world’s economic powerhouses.

Europe, long wary of antagonizing the bear to the East, supplier of about 30 percent of the continent’s energy needs, finally may be poised to take action against Russian aggression. The leaders of Britain, France, and Germany held a conference call Sunday, and a spokesman for Downing Street said the three agreed the European Union “should be ready to impose further sanctions on Russia.”

“Russia did it and Mr. Putin must pay, politically and economically,” The Sunday Times of London said, voicing the sentiments of many in Europe.

European dependence on Russian oil and natural gas makes the continent vulnerable to Russian countermoves. Economic ties with Russia go beyond reliance on the shipment of oil and natural gas; Russian cash is omnipresent throughout Europe, from London bank accounts and luxury apartments to expensive hotels and high-end boutiques in Paris and Rome. At the same time, Europe’s reliance on Russian energy and money gives it leverage against Russia, since Moscow may not be willing to risk jeopardizing European trade and contacts for the sake of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

The European Union has been loath to antagonize the Russian bear up to now, imposing only modest sanctions on Putin’s government for its support of the rebels who oppose Kiev’s new pro-Western government. But Putin’s fingerprints on the missile that downed the Malaysian airliner may alter the European calculus, making it more willing to cooperate with the United States in imposing tougher sanctions on Moscow for its recklessness in Ukraine.

Washington has been upping the ante by repeatedly toughening sanctions, but it can only accomplish so much acting alone. Now, with the European Union poised to take measures, the United States may find itself hamstrung by a dysfunctional political system in which the opposition blames the president for everything. In the Republican worldview, every crisis is about Barack Obama, and it’s always his fault. Obama “lost” Crimea, and he’s responsible for the continuing rebel activity in eastern Ukraine.

At the beginning of the Crimean crisis, some Republicans even went so far as to compare the American president unfavorably to the Russian. “He makes a decision and he executes it, quickly,” gushed Rudy Giuliani about Putin. “Then everybody reacts. That is what you call a leader.”

The crisis in Ukraine, like that in the Mideast with Hamas shelling Israel and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza, should remind all on both sides of the political divide that while American democracy honors partisanship, there are times when the stakes are so high as to require politicians of both parties to coalesce on a unified course of action.

Are you listening Mr. Speaker Boehner and Mr. Majority Leader McConnell?