Don’t soft-pedal Russia’s creeping invasions

Call Russia’s adventure in Ukraine what it really is, an invasion. President Obama’s euphemism, “incursion,” hardly describes what Russia is doing on the ground – which now includes armored columns, infantry and heavy artillery crossing the Ukrainian border.

This isn’t just semantics. Russian President Vladimir Putin is testing Obama and other European leaders; if he senses timidity, he may be tempted to see how much more he can get away with. Worst-case scenarios would then become plausible. Putin might eventually challenge the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance by trying to pick off its weakest, easternmost members. That could lead to a collapse of the Western alliance – or provoke an unthinkable conflict.

Obama has an unfortunate routine of proclaiming his unwillingness to take military action in various parts of the world. He did it again Thursday in his White House statement about the Ukraine.

He’s right in a literal sense: It would be monumentally foolish for the United States to get into a hot war with Russia over Ukraine. Nobody serious in this country is proposing to do that. But Obama doesn’t have to announce every couple months that he’s not putting boots on the ground in some emerging trouble spot. It can be a good idea to leave aggressors worried about possible American reactions – as Obama, to his credit, has started doing with the Islamic State in Iraq.

The president did make the right sounds on one essential point: Article 5 of the NATO charter, which promises that an attack on one member nation will be treated as an attack on all.

“We take our Article 5 commitments to defend each other very seriously, and that includes the smallest NATO member as well as the largest NATO member.” He added that he’d soon be going to Estonia “to let the Estonians know that we mean what we say with respect to our treaty obligations.”

Estonia is a trigger. For better or for worse, NATO allowed it to enter the alliance 10 years ago, along with its neighbors Latvia and Lithuania. Putin undoubtedly believes that the three Baltic states belong in the Russian orbit. Like Ukraine, they border old Russia, and were once part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Putin has made no secret of his admiration and longing for the Soviet Union.

Ukraine itself borders four of the Soviet Union’s old captive “allies”: Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, all of which have also been admitted to NATO.

The big question is, what does Putin want? Would he be satisfied with pulling southeastern Ukraine into Russia? Does he have a long-term plan to swallow the whole of Ukraine and then start nibbling at the edges of NATO? Is he just feeling his way along, trying to find out what he can get away with?

Regardless, the United States and NATO must make sure he doesn’t someday test Article 5 by violating the borders of a Western ally. In Ukraine, he has developed a strange, slow-motion form of conquest marked by economic attacks, insurgency, mysterious soldiers in unmarked uniforms, preposterous denials and ultimately open Russian military subjugation.

It seems to befuddle Western leaders, who keep muting their responses. But invasion is invasion. Let’s not pretend it’s merely trespassing.