WASHINGTON — Having just ratcheted up the pressure on Russia with a new round of sanctions not 24 hours before, the Obama administration Thursday faced a potentially volatile new development in Ukraine with the downing of a Malaysian jetliner.
As President Obama called the president of Ukraine and the prime minister of Malaysia, U.S. officials were slow to speculate about what happened until Vice President Biden later said it appeared to have been shot down.
"Not an accident, blown out of the sky," he told a conference in Detroit. While he said more investigation needs to be done, the vice president went further than any other U.S. official in attributing the crash to an intentional act.
But beyond sending investigators, the administration's options aren't clear.
"The first question is whether or not U.S. interests have changed at all in the last 24 hours," said Joshua Rovner, a professor at Southern Methodist University. "It's been a terrible day, but it's not clear to me that the U.S. interests are any different than they were the day before."
The sanctions imposed Wednesday, targeting Russian banking and energy concerns and people tied closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin, "are not meaningless sanctions at all," Rovner said. And there's still room for more economic pressure with broader, industry-wide sanctions.
To a person, U.S. officials were careful to say they didn't want to jump to conclusions. But they also acknowledged that a missile attack from Russian separatists was not unlikely.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the jetliner incident follows months of escalating tensions, with Russian-based separatists shooting down more than a dozen planes and helicopters in Ukraine.
"If evidence emerges that Russia was involved that would obviously be extremely concerning," she said.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States continues to be concerned by "the escalatory actions that we continue to see from Russia.
"However, we don't have enough info about this specific incident," she said. "And I don't want to speculate about who's to blame or the root causes, when we don't have that information yet."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was more willing to speculate, telling MSNBC that it had the "earmarks of a mistaken identification" incident.
If that turns out to be the case, there will be "incredible repercussions," he said. "Exactly what those will be will have to be determined by how we find out who was responsible."
Those repercussions could be diplomatic, economic and military, said Stephen Black, a Russia fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
"I think we could bring this to the U.N. and start the ball rolling," he said. "Not just the Security Council, but the General Assembly, where Russia can't veto it. There are more economic tools. We did not simply block them from doing dollar-denominated transactions."
If nothing else, the incident demonstrates that the situation in Ukraine has impacts felt across the globe, said Damon Wilson, who served as a Russia and Ukraine expert in the administrations of former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Wilson, now with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, said the U.S. and its allies should ratchet up "sanctions that bite, along with military assistance, including lethal military assistance to Ukraine."
News reports of the downed airliner emerged even as Obama was on the phone with Putin Thursday morning. The call was arranged at Moscow's urging to discuss the sanctions Obama announced late Wednesday.
Obama told Putin the United States and its allies are willing to take additional measures if Russia doesn't work to deescalate the conflict, said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. "They could shut down the border and prevent the transfer of heavy weapons and materiel to separatists. They have not done that. President Putin himself could intervene with pro-Russian separatists and encourage them to abide by the ceasefire. He has not done that," he said.
During that call, Putin mentioned the early news reports of the downed jet.