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Downed jetliner shows weakness in NATO alliance

Jul 25, 2014 - By Richard Parker, McClatchy Newspapers

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has claimed yet another casualty: the NATO alliance.

Most assuredly the human costs -- the loss of 298 lives in the shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines flight, on top of nearly 500 Ukrainians killed since April alone -- are the real tragedies of Ukraine's national turmoil now turned into geopolitical struggle. But tragedy comes with strategic costs, too: Ukraine's loss of Crimea, a Russian economy battered increasingly by Western sanctions.

And among these now, is the credibility of the NATO alliance. Having just turned 65, NATO is conspicuously absent from this latest turn of events, despite the loss of hundreds of lives from member nations. This may be a display of subtle diplomacy -- certainly a better alternative than war -- but it undercuts the credibility of the world's most successful political and military alliance, too.

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 in Moscow continues to fan the flame of fear over NATO in its propaganda as it intervenes in Ukraine and effectively divides the country in two, with Russian Crimea in one hand and separatist pro-Russian eastern Ukraine in the other.

Now, the shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has killed not just 298 individuals -- but over 200 citizens of NATO nations, including Belgium, Canada, Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands. If the shootdown was a purposeful act -- either by Ukrainian separatists or Russian forces -- NATO could easily 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, for example, 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 not only in self-defense but in the name of preserving security in Europe -- even if the shootdown was not purposeful.

This may sound radical but it's not; there is plenty of precedent. NATO invoked Article 5 after 9-11 to join the American 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 the alliance is remaining curiously silent. It is the dog that doesn't bark, leaving individual member nations to take their own individual actions.

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, a day's drive from Moscow, is of vital, strategic importance. The United States and its allies have determined that it is not.

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