President Barack Obama sent the right message Wednesday by denouncing in no uncertain terms Russia's intervention in Ukraine and reaffirming NATO's security obligations in Eastern Europe. After weeks of wobbling by the Western allies, the Obama administration was right to lay the fault for the crisis directly with Russia and to cast the challenge in regional terms. Now the alliance's other 27 members need to repeat that same message as NATO's two-day summit meeting opens today in Wales.
The president's remarks in Estonia were largely meant to calm concerns among European allies about NATO's security guarantees amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, even as Kiev and Moscow hinted on Wednesday that some form of cease-fire could be in the offing. Obama's speech should be the starting point for discussions today over how the allies can project a more united front — and more broadly, how NATO can energize the clout of soft power that rests behind the principle of collective defense.
The immediate situation in Ukraine was in flux Wednesday after the government and rebel groups gave conflicting signals about the prospects for a cease-fire. Russian President Vladimir Putin ended any pretense that his country was not behind the military uprising by pro-Russian separatists, however, as he announced he had "sketched out" a cease-fire agreement that was to take effect by Friday. It calls — almost implausibly — for a pullback of Ukrainian forces from Ukrainian territory. That would be a de facto surrender to the very rebels that Moscow is using to consolidate its takeover of Crimea in March.
There are no surefire options for NATO, but one proposal worth adopting today would establish a 4,000-strong rapid reaction force. The contingent would not enable NATO to repel a full-scale invasion. But it would create mobility for allied forces and send a warning to Russia not to further meddle along NATO's eastern border.
The alliance, though, needs to recognize that any new military posture is mostly symbolic. The United States and NATO have no appetite for intervening militarily on Ukraine's behalf, although they could provide some financial assistance. The West needs to ramp up the pressure by toughening trade and diplomatic sanctions. France advanced that front Wednesday by suspending the delivery of a helicopter carrier to Russia. The Europeans could do more by increasing their defense budgets and demonstrating a greater willingness to sacrifice trade with Russia to advance regional security.
Putin is not feeling the full brunt of political and economic isolation for his unilateral adventurism yet, but a show of resolve by NATO this week could create some much-needed diplomatic room for the Ukrainian government and the rebels to address their territorial disputes in a way that ratchets down the tension and also allows Russia to save face. At the least, this week's summit is an opportunity for the allies to recommit to their common defense and make clear to Putin and the rest of the world that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Obama's rallying call Wednesday needs to be followed by tangible steps to contain the present crisis and to strengthen NATO's influence in this ever-changing world.