Efrem Lukatsky, AP
Volunteers with the right-wing paramilitary Azov National Corps light flares during a rally on the snowy streets in front of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. Some hundreds of protesters from far-right party National Corps brandished yellow-and-blue flags with the Ukrainian national trident symbol, and a banner reading "Don't back down!"

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, yet the latest provocations by Russia against Ukraine could be the alliance’s biggest test yet.

It comes at a time when the Trump administration seems to be minimizing NATO’s importance and as Great Britain negotiates a split from the European Union, and it has echoes of expansionist moves in the past.

When a nation as large and powerful as Russia takes aggressive action against a much weaker neighbor under the pretense that the weaker neighbor provoked the confrontation, all of Europe and the United States should take notice.

That is especially true considering Ukraine’s government has expressed desires to be part of the NATO alliance.

But it isn’t enough for NATO alone to object, as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg did on Monday. President Donald Trump needs to send clear signals that the United States considers the alliance vital to its interests and that its members are united.

The latest crisis was triggered over the weekend when Russia seized three Ukrainian military ships in the Sea of Azov, a key waterway that connects much of Ukraine to the Black Sea. Getting to the Black Sea involves passing through the Kerch Strait, a narrow passage between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed through military force in 2014.

" When a nation as large and powerful as Russia takes aggressive action against a much weaker neighbor under the pretense that the weaker neighbor provoked the confrontation, all of Europe and the United States should take notice. "

A video somehow obtained by the Ukrainian foreign minister appears to clearly show a Russian vessel ramming a much smaller Ukrainian boat. All 24 Ukrainians aboard the three vessels were detained by Russia, and somewhere between three and six of them, depending on which side you believe, required treatment for injuries.

Under the Russian version of events, its ships were responding to a provocation by Ukraine.

NATO officially is urging calm. The European Union is condemning the action and urging Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors. Various European nations are urging the United Nations to take action, forcing Russia to allow free passage through the strait.

Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t likely to back off. His objectives remain unclear, but he likely has designs on greater control in Ukraine, and he has little reason to believe he would receive much resistance other than from the Ukrainians themselves.

The United States began sending the wrong signal to Russia in 2014, when President Barack Obama reacted far too cautiously after Russia annexed Crimea. He imposed sanctions that had little effect. Instead, Russia launched a campaign to influence U.S. elections in 2016 that also received little attention from Obama and that continues to divide Americans and distract them from bigger problems.

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Now, Trump’s open criticism of other members of the NATO alliance, especially his assertion in Brussels last summer that Germany is a “captive of Russia,” gives Putin little reason to expect any sort of hedge to his aggressions beyond more meaningless gestures.

This presents a supreme test for the old alliance and for its new post-Soviet members. It also presents a strong argument for why NATO remains not only relevant but essential to peace in Europe and beyond.

The Trump administration should strongly restate a U.S. resolve to stand by its neighbors. Much could be done short of military intervention, but all parties involved must understand that a show of strength and unity now is the best hedge against the need for such intervention in the future.