NATO isn't coming to the rescue of Ukraine's troops. Photographer: Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images
NATO isn't coming to the rescue of Ukraine's troops. Photographer: Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most irritating phrases repeated by Western leaders and diplomats in recent weeks is that the conflict in Ukraine "cannot have a military solution." From U.S. President Barack Obama to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it is routinely uttered as if it were a self-evident truth.

Yet it is nonsense. There can be a military solution -- for Russia. Certainly Ukraine can't win militarily, because Russia will offer the separatists it backs in the east as much support as they need, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization won't get involved from the other side. Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, even recently told European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso: "I can take Kiev in two weeks."

Earlier this year it was only those on the lunatic nationalist fringe in Moscow who talked about taking Kiev. Now it's Putin. This is part of a disturbing pattern. For a long time, only ultranationalists talked about a place called Novorossiya, or New Russia. In April, Putin took that up, and by June the separatists in Ukraine had merged their self-proclaimed republics to found Novorossiya.

So what are the Russian lunatics talking about now? Ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians in Novorossiya, and attacking Poland and the Baltic states. The Kremlin's pet nationalist clown and legislator Vladimir Zhirinovsky spoke of a nuclear strike on those countries to prove that the U.S. would not risk nuclear war to defend Estonia. Most likely, this is rhetoric that Putin would never match, but it is what the U.S., European Union and NATO should be thinking about now. Estonia borders Russia, has a large ethnic Russian minority, and is despised with particular venom by the Kremlin. And yes, demonstrating that NATO would defend Estonia requires "a military solution."

It appears that the NATO summit this week will do two things. First, the alliance is expected to agree to equip bases in Poland and the Baltic states and begin a "persistent rotation" of a few thousand troops through them. That wording amounts to Putin-like double-speak, to get around commitments the alliance made in 1997 not to position permanent bases in eastern Europe.

Second, it seems NATO will devote a 10,000-strong rapid reaction force to deploy eastward at short notice.

This would all be good, but it needs to be done in such a way that Putin clearly gets that when it comes to the Baltic states in particular, NATO's commitment is ironclad. If not, he will test it. A NATO failure to defend one of its members would gut the alliance, something Putin would consider a huge victory.

The rotated NATO troops would be merely symbolic, a tripwire that puts NATO troops in harm's way in countries such as Estonia -- tiny, flat and with nowhere to retreat but the sea -- that cannot possibly defend themselves against Russia. There is a precedent: Berlin was impossible to defend during the Cold War, but the presence of U.S. and allied troops was enough to deter the Soviet Union from attacking, for fear of triggering World War III. The nationality of the tripwire troops is therefore important. They should certainly come from the U.S., but also western Europe, and in particular, Germany.

Just as significant, says Pauli Jarvenpaa, a former director general of defense policy at Finland's Defense Ministry, is how well the bases are stocked. It takes time to build depots of fuel, lubricants and facilities to handle heavy tanks that would be needed to defend against a Russian invasion. Estonia's standing army of 3,800 troops (16,000 in the event of a call-up of reserves) would not provide much of a time cushion. So NATO's forward bases should not be provisioned just for the small persistent-rotation force and the slightly larger rapid-reaction troops. To be effective, Jarvenpaa says, "they need to be able to handle more than 10,000 troops." And Putin has to know it.

The U.S. and Europe have chosen not to go to war over Ukraine. If they want to ensure that Putin doesn't test NATO at home, they need to persuade him that there can be "no military solution" for him, should he try. That will take more than speeches and gestures. It will require a military strategy that plans for a defensive war in Estonia.

To contact the author of this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net.