The war between Russia and Ukraine does not involve NATO. But it may decide its future.

The central question surrounding Russia’s behavior of late is this: Would Vladimir Putin order the invasion of a NATO country? One of the main arguments for NATO’s continued importance is the fact that when Putin wants to make trouble and consolidate his influence in Russia’s near-abroad, he tends only to send the Russian army into countries that are not part of NATO.

In the case of Georgia, it was done explicitly to try to prevent Georgia’s accession to NATO, though it wasn’t imminent. The invasion of Ukraine was also at least in part an attempt to punish Ukraine for moving toward the West, spook it into further compliance with Putin’s will, and serve as an example to other states in the neighborhood that when you go out on that limb there is no one–not Europe, certainly not Russia–to catch you if you fall.

That is not to say Russia doesn’t come awfully close to crossing those lines. It kidnapped an Estonian officer last year from Estonian territory, for example, and had in the past hit Estonia with cyber attacks. And it freely assassinates critics of the Kremlin even in Western countries, with relative impunity. But the Russian tanks have yet to roll in to a NATO nation, which would have the right to invoke mutual defense obligations from other NATO nations–the U.S. military, in other words. And what would happen if it did?

Some think the mutual defense clause is, at this point, a relic and a bluff. Which is why the West’s unwillingness to give Ukraine any serious help is a bad sign for NATO’s command. If NATO is going to bluff, it doesn’t need the Germans announcing that it’s bluffing to the world. Which is what has been happening over the last week as the NATO-Germany rift is opening in public:

For months, [NATO Europe commander General Philip] Breedlove has been commenting on Russian activities in eastern Ukraine, speaking of troop advances on the border, the amassing of munitions and alleged columns of Russian tanks. Over and over again, Breedlove’s numbers have been significantly higher than those in the possession of America’s NATO allies in Europe. As such, he is playing directly into the hands of the hardliners in the US Congress and in NATO.

The German government is alarmed. Are the Americans trying to thwart European efforts at mediation led by Chancellor Angela Merkel? Sources in the Chancellery have referred to Breedlove’s comments as “dangerous propaganda.” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even found it necessary recently to bring up Breedlove’s comments with NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg.

Having the Germans accuse NATO of “propaganda” because the latter is alarmed by Russia’s repeated invasions of Ukraine is among the surest signs yet that Western Europe is far more afraid of the Russian bear than the Ukrainians are. And of course the Germans are upset with the U.S. as well. That comment about “Americans trying to thwart” Europe’s peace efforts sound less like Berlin’s finest than Sputnik media script writers.

Speaking of Sputnik, the Kremlin propagandists are quite enjoying the Germans trying to scold NATO into not making trouble with Moscow:

Describing the conflict as a “surprise”, the publication points to the EU’s “growing resentment of Washington’s anti-Russian strategy”, adding that the “escalation against Russia is being fueled by ‘hawks’ in the US,” including former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.” …

General Breedlove’s statements prompted harsh criticism from Berlin, which blames NATO for hampering a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Yuk it up, fellas.

What’s happening here is very simple. Russia is running out of non-NATO countries in its neighborhood to invade. NATO can’t save Ukraine, but it’s pledged to save its member countries, which could be Putin’s next targets.

There are two ways the Ukraine endgame can protect NATO countries from having to find out if the alliance’s mutual defense provisions are just a pretty lie. The first is that whatever happens in Ukraine, if Europe appears serious about drawing lines in the sand then Russia might believe it cannot attack a NATO country without risking war with NATO–war with Europe and the U.S., that is. The second is if the cost of Russia’s adventure in Ukraine is made high enough, Moscow will have neither the will nor the resources to keep invading European countries.

The Germans think NATO is being too belligerent with regard to Ukraine, because they’re merely assuming that Ukraine is the end of it. That is both naïve and dangerous. And it signals to Moscow that Berlin doesn’t have the stomach for a fight. Considering Germany’s history, it would be a sad irony if the Germans were the ones to finally sink NATO’s credibility. Either way, if NATO’s credibility remains intact it’ll be no thanks to Chancellor Merkel.

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