Most assuredly the human costs -- the loss of 298 lives in the shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, on top of nearly 500 Ukrainians killed since April alone -- are the real tragedies of Ukraine's turmoil now turned into geopolitical struggle. But tragedy comes with strategic costs, too: Ukraine's loss of Crimea, a Russian economy battered by sanctions. And among these is the credibility of the NATO alliance.
Having just turned 65, NATO is conspicuously absent despite the loss of hundreds of lives from member nations. This may be a display of subtle diplomacy but it undercuts the credibility of the world's most successful political and military alliance, too.
Contrary to public opinion, unfortunately, military shootdowns of civilian aircraft are horrendously common. Since 1950 there have been about 20; on average that is one every three years or so. But no such incident in the last 60-plus years brought an alliance nose-to-nose with an adversary -- except perhaps the destruction of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983. That is, until now.
The expansion of the NATO alliance nearly to all of Russia's western borders has provided an important backdrop in the struggle over Ukraine, which made a bid for membership only to drop it a few years ago. The Putin government continues to fan the flame of fear over NATO in its propaganda as it intervenes in Ukraine and divides the country in two, with Russian Crimea in one hand and separatist pro-Russian eastern Ukraine in the other.
Now, the shootdown of Flight 17 has killed not just 298 individuals -- but more than 200 citizens of NATO nations. If the shootdown was a purposeful act NATO could invoke its core founding principle: Article 5 of its charter, which provides for collective defense, meaning that an attack on any member is an attack on all.
In doing so the alliance could impose and enforce a no-fly zone over eastern Ukraine. Alliance aircraft could search out and destroy illegal surface-to-air missile sites in self-defense and in the name of preserving security in Europe -- even if the shootdown was not purposeful. There is precedent: NATO invoked Article 5 after 9/11 to join the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. And NATO has gone beyond collective defense to collective security in military operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and, most recently, Libya.
Yet this time NATO remains curiously silent. It is the dog that doesn't bark, leaving member nations to take their own actions. There is probably a sound reason: NATO action on the Russian periphery would provoke a Russian military response. The unwillingness of the alliance to even risk such a response suggests it would have difficulty in fulfilling Article 5 and defending, say, Poland and the Baltics. The alliance has not transformed some new member militaries into effective, integrated fighting forces.
People may wonder why the United States hasn't taken a stronger line against Russia over Ukraine. This is why. The Putin government has determined that what happens in Ukraine is of vital, strategic importance. The United States and its allies have determined that it is not. President Barack Obama quashed the idea of a U.S. military response after the shootdown. It was a prudent decision.
But in this case there is collateral damage to the world's most successful alliance. It has never been bigger nor have its missions ever been more ambitious. And yet it is paralyzed, incapable of playing a role in a crisis right on its European doorstep. Whether the wounding of NATO's credibility is grave or mortal has yet to be seen. But it will not go unnoticed in Moscow, and elsewhere.