Since Russian troops seized Ukraine’s strategic Crimean peninsula in late February, and separatists backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin began waging a bloody insurgency in the country’s east, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has walked a fine line.
The transatlantic military alliance has sent hundreds of troops to Ukraine to train alongside Kiev’s forces. But at a major summit in early September, NATO declined to offer Ukraine membership. The alliance doesn’t really want to go to war over Ukraine.
If Russia were to expand its coercive campaign, however, and invade neighboring Estonia — where a security officer is said to have been abducted by Russian forces, a little more than a week ago — NATO’s 27 other member states would have little choice but to deploy troops in combat. They are obligated under Article 5 of NATO’s 1949 founding charter to defend each other from attack.
Yet it’s not at all clear that Russia would choose to fight on NATO’s terms. A Russian form of secret warfare called maskirovka might not qualify as a military attack — and could avoid triggering NATO intervention. Instead of fighting in the open, Russian troops entered Crimea in vehicles with license plates and insignia blacked out. There was no clear evidence — at least available publicly — that it was the Russian’s themselves taking action, rather than locals acting on their own behalf.
Such tactics stop short of open warfare and the nations thus invaded fear that if they counterattack, they would then be labeled the aggressors.