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Responding to MH 17

The State Department and Pentagon reported that Russia has increased its direct involvement in fighting between the Ukrainian military and separatist insurgents. This includes firing artillery from Russia against Ukrainian forces and moving more of its own troops to the border. Other reports are circulating that Russia is preparing to arm the rebels with more capable weapons to include Tornado rocket launchers.

It would appear that Russia is not reconsidering its positions after last week’s downing of the Malaysian airliner. Why should it? What has been the international response?

The Russians seem to be trying to roll back the gains that Ukraine has made against the separatists—some rebel held territory has been retaken. The Russians must perceive that they need to escalate and reach an acceptable cease fire situation and are willing to tolerate the adverse European response. This Russian escalation needs to be countered rather than condoned. Does the West have the back bone to contain the escalation and increase the costs to the Russians so that they will agree to let the Ukrainians solve their internal problems?

Senior American military and intelligence officials are arguing that if Russian President Putin does not encounter significant resistance to Russia’s moves in Ukraine, he may be emboldened to go further.

There are several options for raising the costs to the Russians for their involvement in the Ukraine. Reportedly plans are being developed that would enable the Obama administration to provide specific locations of surface-to-air missiles controlled by the separatists so that the Ukrainian military could target them for engagement.

Another proposal would be to provide the Ukrainian military with counter fire radars—radars that determine the location of firing artillery—and the artillery or rocket launchers that could range and engage the Russian artillery any time that it fires. Such an escalated capability would cause a major change in the battlefield dynamics. The Russians would be forced to either severely escalate or come to the realization that escalation is dysfunctional.

Providing the locations of either air defense missile launching systems or firing batteries would not be technologically difficult. “We think we could do it easily and be very effective,” a senior military official said. “But there are issues of escalation with the Russians, and the decision about whether it’s wise to do it.”

The sharing of intelligence proposal has not yet been debated in the White House and it is unclear whether President Obama will agree to give more precise information about potential military targets--a step that would involve the United States more deeply in the conflict. The proposal is designed to directly respond to the downing of the Malaysian airliner.

There are also questions about the capability of the Ukrainian military, given targeting coordinates, to engage with the required precision the Russian-supplied antiaircraft batteries. Or for that matter the Russian artillery.

Thus there are two issues to responding to the Russian escalation and activities in the Ukraine:
1. The decision to respond to the escalation by the Russians and whether the US will have the determination to respond.
2. Can the Ukrainians exploit the capabilities that can be provided?

The counter fire radar proposal is probably less controversial, but both are subject to the willingness of the Obama administration to confront Russia and force further escalation by Russia or the desired de-escalation and settlement by the Ukrainians internally.

The policy decision needs to be made sooner rather than later. The longer the time lapse the less emphatic will be the perception of whatever action is taken.