When Is An Invasion Not An Invasion?
Last spring when Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, the key question those who were ready to resist his moves were invariably asked «Are you prepared to die for Narva?» a question about the defense of a city in eastern Estonia, a member of NATO. That question hasn’t gone away, but now another one has appeared that may be more fateful not only for Estonia, Ukraine and the Western alliance: «When is an invasion an invasion — and when is it not?»
For months, Western leaders have contorted the language and strained credibility in order to avoid saying that Russia has invaded Ukraine not only out of fear that describing Moscow’s dispatch of personnel and materiel to forces in Ukraine as one would anger Putin and trigger him to take even more dangerous steps than he has already done but also out of a fear that doing so would put them under a moral and, given the Budapest Memorandum, legal obligation to stand up to the Russian dictator.
That suits Putin just fine: after all, he claims he has not invaded Ukraine; and it may equally suit the leaders of Western countries who cannot believe that what is happening in Ukraine is in fact happening and their own populations who find it hard to believe that Russia has invaded its neighbor and sparked a war on the edge of Europe and who are unprepared and often unwilling to assume new burdens. Nuclear weapons and the many international accords Russia and the West are signatories to were supposed to make that impossible.
But it is not fine for Ukraine, it is not fine for other countries in the region, it is not fine for NATO, and it is not fine for the international community. It is not fine for Ukraine because it means that instead of calling things by their proper name, Western leaders are in effect colluding with Putin to deny the obvious and allow him to continue his aggression. It is not fine for other countries in the region because Putin is undoubtedly concluding that he will be able to do the same things — from dispatching «little green men» to using humanitarian convoys to send in weapons to ordering Russian draftees to fight and die — and many in the West will again do everything they can to avoid calling it an invasion or an act of aggression.
It is also not fine for the NATO member countries in the region and for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the first instance. They count on Article 5 of the NATO Charter to protect them. That article specifies as everyone knows that an attack on one member state will be considered an attack on all. For many in NATO in the past, an attack or invasion was something that would take the form of Soviet tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap into the German plain. But what does Article 5 mean if the leaders of key NATO countries do not describe an invasion as an invasion? Does that open the way to the possibility that some in the alliance might decide that the appearance of «little green men» or self-proclaimed «separatists» in Estonia or Latvia do not constitute an invasion and an act of aggression that NATO would be honor bound to repel?