With Ukraine under siege, many have asked why nothing has been done by Ukrainian allies — especially the United States — to truly aid the embattled country. Following weeks of warning by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, now a globally-admired leader, there seemed to be no initiatives on the table to either de-escalate or prepare for the impending Russian invasion. Russia moved across its western border just days after U.S. President Joe Biden’s threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-February that there would be “swift and severe” consequences if Russia invaded, and similar threats were echoed by leaders of U.S. allies. Yet as the powerful Russian military rolled in, outnumbering Ukraine’s active-duty forces more than four to one, the strong response that had been forewarned seemed nowhere to be found.
Over the last two weeks, it has become apparent that the consequences, however swift, have not been severe enough to deter Putin from attempting to topple Ukraine’s government. To their credit, the U.S. and its G-7 allies have organized a far-reaching network of economic sanctions against Russia, its regime and its economy. The measures have included banning Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) international payments system, preventing transactions with Russia’s sovereign wealth fund and seizing the property of Russian oligarchs with financial ties to Putin. These sanctions have been devastating enough to Russia’s banks, stock market and currency that Putin recently likened the use of these purely economic tools to “a declaration of war.”
Importantly, Putin also warned that any attempts by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to institute a “no-fly zone” in Ukraine’s airspace would be considered a step into combat. This warning came after President Zelenskyy’s request for the creation of a no-fly zone to prevent the bombardment of Ukrainians.
Given these conditions, the U.S. and NATO have a critical choice to make that could determine the course of the current conflict: Should they come to the need of an ally, which has long been on the brink of joining NATO and the European Union, or will they leave the Ukrainian people to fend for themselves as the Russian attack inevitably continues? For the 74% of Americans who indicated their support for a no-fly zone in a March 4 Reuters poll, and likely others who may favor another course of action, the answer seems obvious.
It is clear that a no-fly zone in Ukraine would pose the risk of direct conflict with Russian military forces if enforced by the U.S. or its European allies. To enforce a no-fly zone, Russian warplanes carrying out operations in Ukrainian airspace would have to be taken down. This idea has been rebuffed by NATO and, though many Americans supported the motion when polled, most opposed sending troops to fight in Ukraine, a very possible outcome of imposing a no-fly zone.
Yet there is another option for assisting the Ukrainians without putting American armed service members into harm’s way or escalating the current conflict into a large-scale war. An alternative proposed by President Zelenskyy and apparently popular across partisan lines in Congress would be for the U.S. and NATO to supply the Ukrainian military with planes, equipment and military aid.
On March 7, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave NATO the “green light” to transfer fighter jets to Ukraine, and it appeared that the U.S. was working on agreements with states previously apprehensive about such an initiative, such as Poland, to assist in the process. In this initiative, Poland or other potential participants would receive American-made planes in exchange for giving the Ukrainians Soviet-era MiGs, providing the incentive of a formidable upgrade in the air. As noted in a letter to President Biden from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., advocating for U.S. leadership in sending jets to Ukraine, Ukrainian pilots would have greater familiarity with the operating systems for Soviet planes than American models, among other advantages of the plan.
Momentum for the initiative seemed to be building until March 9, when it was announced that the U.S. no longer supported the initiative to ship MiG jets to the Ukrainian front through Eastern European NATO members — a surprising turnaround, given Blinken’s enthusiasm just two days prior. With Polish officials rightfully concerned about the image of independently gifting the planes to Ukraine without U.S. and NATO assistance, thus drawing Russia’s scorn and possibly an attack, it seems the jet provision is dead in the water.
Opponents of the plan cited the need to remove certain components of the planes that were designed for NATO militaries, ostensibly to prevent the technology from falling into nefarious hands. Though officials implied this process would take months, it is hard to believe that MiG provisions were so heavily and publicly discussed by U.S., Polish and E.U. leadership if the plan was truly impossible due to such complications.
The Biden administration also cited the “high risks” of the plan as justification for backing out. Yet Putin considered the sanctions placed on Russia an “act of war” and still did not attack outside of Ukraine. Ultimately, what does it say about the U.S.’s global strength and leadership if it unilaterally concedes the right to define what can justifiably be considered a war-worthy act to perhaps its greatest global adversary?
President Biden and Secretary Blinken have rightly recognized that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine exemplifies his Soviet-like desire to expand Russian power, a philosophy also displayed in Russia’s “peacekeeping” operations with the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Kazakhstan this year. It would be true poetic justice for soldiers of a former Soviet republic to defend against Russian aggression using planes that were a staple of the U.S.S.R.’s military.
Because such planes are Russian-made, the U.S., Poland and their allies would also maintain minimal responsibility for arming the Ukrainian military and avoid the approval process necessary for sending American defense tech overseas, while providing critical aid to an endangered friend. Additionally, if giving jets to Ukraine is truly off the table, it is hard to imagine another course of action that could both reasonably keep the West out of the war and — unlike the active array of economic sanctions — truly alter the status quo on the battlefield.
Given the severity of Russia’s attacks against Ukraine and its civilians, there is no time to waste in pushing such an initiative forward. While it is reasonable and calculated for the U.S., NATO and E.U. to avoid being pulled into this war by defending Ukraine directly, orchestrating the distribution of planes and equipment to Ukraine’s forces would provide President Zelenskyy with the assistance he has requested, without putting American lives and interests at risk. Furthermore, at a time when a nation faces the threat of destruction at the hands of a longtime adversary, it is worth taking one of the few options left on the table that will allow America to aid Ukraine without drawing itself into war. U.S. leadership and our European allies should heed Blinken’s “green light” as a chance to move quickly and help a friend in need.
Noah Ente is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.