03/12/2014 02:30 pm ET Updated May 12, 2014

Incognito Soldiers

There's a lot going on in the world to disturb the peace of mind of an old soldier like me, but nothing I have seen lately is quite as creepy -- and worrisome -- as the sight of armed soldiers in Ukraine wearing uniforms without insignias to denote who they are, where they are from and who they represent.

Everyone assumes they are Russians sent by the dictator Vladimir Putin to intimidate the Ukrainians and I assume that is so. I cannot imagine who else they might be, but that is the point of the thing. It is a basic rule of modern civilization, enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. All individuals engaged in conflict are supposed to wear uniforms that distinguish what nation they represent, and to bear their arms openly. It is a common assumption among the warrior caste, to which I belong, that armed individuals captured in a war zone without appropriate identity are presumed to be spies and are summarily shot.

I can hardly imagine the uproar that would ensue if the United States government were to send armed soldiers into unsettled areas without identification. The citizenry would be raising a mighty ruckus, and I would be among the loudest. God knows war is bad enough when played by the rules. Those rules were born of hard experience, negotiated in good faith and for the most part have been honored in the many wars of the last century. They are a critical component of modern civilization.

There is a lot of hand wringing afoot about Russia's efforts to intimidate Ukraine and keep it within the Russian sphere of influence. As a strictly political matter, I can understand Putin's point of view. I do not endorse it, to be sure, but I can understand it. Historically Ukraine has been a critical part of the Russian-dominated world, even before the Soviet Union was forged. To simply allow Ukraine to walk away would be seen as a sign of weakness, and no dictator who intends to keep his head can allow himself to be seen as weak.

But I have seen little outrage over Putin's use of incognito soldiers running amok in an independent country on furtive missions. This strikes me as an issue bigger than Ukraine versus Russia. It is a serious affront to one of the most basic precepts of international law that has been accepted throughout the civilized world for more than a century. The United Nations really needs to take a hard look at this and challenge Russia on it. It represents a major step backwards for the civilized world that could foster much mischief.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.