The latest events in Ukraine raise more questions about the future of war and the future of NATO. Previously, I wrote about how Vladimir Putin’s tactics reflect an uncomfortable trend around the world in which aggressors are actively exploiting the norms and laws we have traditionally held regarding crime and war. Even the media have trouble labeling the suspiciously well-disciplined and well-armed “militants,” “rebels,” or “activists” who are seizing buildings in a coordinated fashion across Ukraine.
The ambiguity over who these men actually are, and how well they may be connected to the Kremlin only complicates military planning for a response. If Ukraine responds with armed force, they will be the ones blamed for escalation against “pro-Russian protesters,” giving Russia a potential excuse for sending in “real” troops; but if they do nothing, this creeping occupation by these pro-Russian, non-insignia-wearing, special forces-looking operators will continue to change the facts on the ground in a way that enhances Putin’s leverage.
Meanwhile, NATO countries have been reluctant to provide support to Ukraine’s military, who is not a member of the transatlantic alliance and therefore not entitled to a collective defensive response under NATO’s Article Five. This is quickly teaching an uncomfortable lesson to the nations of Eastern Europe: unless you are a member of NATO and officially protected by its Article Five guarantee, in which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all, you are on your own against Russia’s new mode of unconventional warfare.
As NATO reinforces defenses on its own eastern border, NATO leaders and military planners must not only consider the possibility of Putin losing his mind and militarily assaulting a NATO country. NATO must also consider what happens if and when these well-armed, unmarked, SOF-like, suspiciously disciplined masked men turn up in a NATO nation, such as Estonia or Latvia (respectively 24 and 27 percent ethnic Russian) and commence another creeping invasion.
Will this be a proper trigger for an Article Five response? If so, what exactly might that military response be? How much time will we afford for deliberation and hand-wringing?