My last post has upset many of my Ukrainian friends because I argued that the Biden administration was correct in not transferring Polish MiGs to Kyiv and in not implementing a no-fly zone. Let me explain the logic behind this in greater detail.
The Polish MiGs were a big distraction from negotiations over more serious ways to protect Ukraine from Russian attacks. These planes are very old, and are not capable of carrying precision-guided munitions useful in attacking ground targets like individual armored vehicles. Ukraine has evidently managed to preserve a large part of its pre-war MiG inventory but is only flying twenty sorties a day, indicating that they are not that useful.
Far more important is providing Ukraine with ground-based air defense systems, more sophisticated than the Stingers and other MANPADs provided up to now. Patriots are evidently too complex a system to learn to operate quickly, but other NATO allies have other weapons that could better serve to defend Ukraine's skies.
With regard to the no-fly zone there is simply no way of implementing this without attacking targets inside Russia itself. The destruction raining down on Ukraine is coming either from ballistic missiles like Iskanders or from cruise missiles carried by aircraft, both of which are being launched from within Russian airspace. It is not possible to implement a no-fly zone without directly attacking these sites, as well as defense sites in Russia, and Russian aircraft flying over Ukrainian territory.
In other cases, it is Russian artillery that is bombarding Ukrainian cities. This artillery could be suppressed from the air with appropriate close air support aircraft, but that again would require a prior suppression of Russian air defenses. The Turkish TB2 drones and Ukrainian counterbattery fire appear at the moment to be the best counters to this threat.
Directly attacking Russian targets would be a grave escalatory step. No one should pretend that such a no-fly zone would be comparable to the humanitarian operations launched over Kurdistan and other areas in the past. In those cases, the enemy did not have the capacity to escalate seriously; Russia does.
We also need to think about the politics of escalation. The Biden administration has been very successful in holding together both the NATO allies and domestic public opinion in support of supplying weapons and training to Ukraine. Before the war there were many voices blaming Russian behavior on NATO expansion, which have been quieted for the moment by the Russian aggression. They will all come out of the woodwork if NATO is seen as the party widening the war. It may be that a wider war will come in any event, but it is important that the Russians be seen as the ones initiating it. The unity within the alliance that we have been celebrating may disappear once escalation occurs.
We may unfortunately get to this point. Putin is getting desperate now, calling on Syrians, Central Asians, and now the Chinese to bail him out. He will rally a lot of support within Russia and around the world if NATO starts attacking Russian territory. At the beginning of World War I, everyone thought the problem was a limited one of Austria punishing Serbia for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, but things quickly got out of control. We don't want to replicate this in the 21st century, when destructive power on both sides is far greater.
Let me be clear. We need to do everything we can to supply Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself: more air defense systems, Javelins, NLAWs, TB2s, and on and on. But we need to think twice before attacking Russia on its own territory.
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