Never underestimate the willingness of the American government, and the American people, to seek peace at any price. We are not a nation of Patrick Henrys, and probably never were. And the limits of our appetite for even a war in which we are not combatants are already beginning to show.
For the first 13 days of this war, US President Biden acted admirably and successfully to assemble and help manage a broad alliance of mostly Western countries responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Economic sanctions were imposed. The first of these was small and peculiarly aimed at the economies of the two partly separatist eastern Ukrainian provinces, but by the next day, important sanctions were properly imposed on Russia, and more were promised. That promise to date has been kept, as the US, EU and other important nations (notable exceptions China and India) ratcheted up sanctions, including interruption of SWIFT financial services, cutoff of trade, freezing of Russian government foreign accounts, and other steps.
Today – March 8 — (written March 8th, although published to the blog on March 15 as it took me a week to re-establish passwords etc. after being away for so long) Pres. Biden announced that the US will cease importing Russian oil and gas. These make up a relatively tiny percentage of US energy imports but the step is important not only for itself and its symbolism, but as recognition of two points: first, that Biden is willing to tell Americans they will have to bear some resultant increases in retail fuel prices at home (it’s a small enough price to pay); and second, that in practical terms, the entire alliance will not be expected to join fully in every step. Europe imports some 25% of its energy from Russia and would suffer more deeply from such an embargo. Even so, the EU reportedly announced it would aim to reduce its Russian energy imports by two-thirds by year end, a significant step.
NATO including the US has been effective at supplying Ukraine with arms, equipment, and humanitarian aid. Western countries bordering Ukraine, especially Poland and including even Hungary with its Putin-philic leader Victor Orban, have been accepting, helping and processing refugees. The stream of refugees is now nearing 2 million. The silver lining of the horror and tragedy of this war is that it has unified and strengthened NATO as nothing has in the past 30 years; Pres. Biden deserves full marks for adroitly managing this hour of history… so far.
With NATO, the US has supplied Ukraine with arms including Stinger and (British) Javelin anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. Last week the US approved $350 million of additional military aid to Ukraine, and one can be confident there is more to come. At the same time, NATO and the US have been clear in rejecting Ukrainian pleas that they impose a ‘no-fly zone’ in Ukraine’s air space. A no-fly zone requires enforcement, which means shooting down Russian planes that enter it; in other words, direct acts of war in the air. Not to mention the need to destroy Russian anti-aircraft emplacements in Russian territory near Ukraine. Both logically and under international law, those acts constitute war. Russia could well retaliate against NATO, and escalation would follow, with a high risk of mutual mass destruction.
Ukraine and its superb president Zelenskyy – who clearly has risen to the crisis as if born to this role – have understandably continued to ask for imposition of a no-fly zone despite NATO’s sensible rejection of that plea. Pres. Zelenskyy’s first duty is to his country and he is right to ask, although we can surmise he is fully aware that the refusal will not change.
But Pres. Zelenskyy has asked too for a second-best alternative: aircraft. Ukraine needs fighter jets in order to continue contesting control of its air space. To date Russia has not achieved air supremacy and maybe not even superiority. But Ukraine’s air force is small; they will run out of aircraft. Hence Zelenskyy’s imploring, cajoling, begging, demanding NATO to supply planes.
Poland has 29 MiG jet aircraft that are similar enough to Ukraine’s force that Ukrainian pilots can readily fly them. Poland is willing to furnish these to Ukraine’s defense. The US seemed to support this, agreeing in principle to refill Poland’s air force with US F-16s to replace the MiGs.
But to the extent giving Ukraine the aircraft posed a risk that Putin would claim this was an act of war and would retaliate, Poland would likely have been the sole target. So Poland found a way to share that risk: it offered to send the MiG jets to the US base at Ramstein, Germany, for shipment to Ukraine. The US would then arrange delivery.
Poland’s offer to fly the planes into Ramstein appears to have caught the US unprepared, but it shouldn’t have – it’s a smart move by the Poles so they do not have to bear alone whatever the Russian reaction is. Apparently, as long as the US thought it could push Poland alone out in front of the aircraft transfer, we were all for it. Now that we would have an active role, we have blinked. The Pentagon’s first public response was to say that the Polish plan is ‘not tenable’ but without saying why.
We should put those jets where our mouth is and get them sent. If Putin wants to consider furnishing war materiel an act of war against Russia, he can already do that based on all the weapons we have already sent. There is no clear line between a jet airplane and a sophisticated, internally guided surface-to-air missile. By contrast, there is a clear line between merely sending equipment and committing combat forces to the war, whether the latter are soldiers, pilots or sailors.
Of course there would be logistical problems to overcome: The MiGs would have to be repainted with Ukrainian insignia rather than Polish or NATO’s. More important, the jets presumably would have to be flown into Ukraine by Ukrainian pilot, so those pilots first would have to be carried to Ramstein – or to any takeoff point. Should they be flown into Ukraine armed (rather helpful if attacked) or unarmed (helpful politically)? But these are not insurmountable.
We can only hope that the US’s sudden hesitation, for fear of reprisal, was merely a reflex response of caution and that after a day or two’s consideration the move will be approved. We cannot afford to let the risk of inciting Putin to recklessness deter us apart from our own rational appraisal of the actual risks. So evaluate the actual risk: To date, Putin has not attacked any NATO state for supplying war materiel, including sophisticated weapons systems, to Ukraine. Aircraft – flown by Ukrainian pilots – are one more form of such materiel. The risk is low and the benefit to the defense of Ukraine is great; this step should be taken.
But I am not optimistic about this. We have blinked because we are now asked not to offload the full risk onto an ally. Supplying the jets was a fine idea so long as Poland did it, but we will not do it.
If this aid refusal stands, it darkens the prospects for the final outcome. Ukraine’s Zelenskyy can promise to fight to the end, “whatever the cost,” as he said in addressing the British Parliament today, using Churchill’s words. But can Ukraine fight on if NATO support is withdrawn? And it is foreseeable that, led by the US, NATO would withdraw support if Putin eventually proposes a division of Ukraine in exchange for cessation of all hostilities. Russia would retain the areas it is about to subdue: the eastern provinces, the Azov and Black Sea coasts including Odessa, and the southern tier extending to Transnistria which already is separatist. Putin likely would throw in safe passage for every Ukrainian in ‘his’ area to the free west and north parts of Ukraine; that would reduce the threat of continued insurgencies.
Peace is precious to Americans and such a proposal would be sickeningly welcomed. President Biden and his advisors should reconsider their initial rejection of supplying jets to Ukraine; it betokens defeat. And defeat will further embolden not only Putin but certain other, more powerful, players, with their own designs and plenty of money, plenty of people, and plenty of patience, to achieve them.