Trudy Rubin commentary: No 'no-fly zone'? Then NATO must find another way to protect Ukraine's skies
Summary: The bottom line: As fast as the West has awakened over the past two weeks, it must act even more swiftly to prevent Putin from wreaking destruction from the air that rivals what Hitler did to London. If Putin’s nuclear blackmail prevents us from saving Ukraine, who knows where he will threaten next.
Watching TV shots of Vladimir Putin ’s army deliberately bombing and shelling civilians is like watching a movie of the London Blitz in 1940, when Adolf Hitler’s air force rained death down from the air.
No wonder the British Parliament jumped to its feet in applause when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed them virtually Tuesday and paraphrased Winston Churchill. He insisted: “We will not give up, we will fight on the sea, on land, whatever the cost. … We will not lose.”
But then came the painful punch line, repeating the plea Zelenskyy has been making over and over — to no avail — to the Europeans and to President Joe Biden: “Please make sure our Ukrainian skies are safe.”
The White House and NATO allies must respond to that plea, even if they reject Zelenskyy’s request for a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine . They must think outside the box on how to stop Russia’s slaughter from the skies.
No matter how bravely Ukrainian ground forces are fighting the Russian Goliath, they are still unable to stop the rain of Russian missiles, rockets, and bombs that are smashing cities and civilians, including those trying to flee. Nor will more economic sanctions on Russian banks and oil — while necessary for the long term — halt Putin’s vicious air campaign.
A NATO no-fly zone would require U.S. or European planes to destroy Russian air defenses and confront Russian planes. Understandably, the West does not want to go to war with Russia to defend a non-NATO member, Ukraine.
But there are other ideas out there for protecting Ukraine’s skies.
“Right now we are in a group think,” I was told by retired Air Force general and former NATO commander Philip Breedlove. “We need to consider other tools.”
He and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker have proposed a humanitarian no-fly zone that could extend over western Ukraine, which Russia hasn’t yet heavily attacked and where hundreds of thousands of refugees are taking shelter. Perhaps it could be extended over Kyiv. It would be designed to protect civilians and permit the delivery of humanitarian aid and the safe exit of refugees.
“A traditional no-fly zone is an act of war, but we are thinking of different rules of engagement,” says Breedlove. “You tell the enemy, we won’t fire on you if you don’t fire on us as we escort people out.”
Of course, it is easy to imagine the objections to such an idea, starting with, “What if the Russians refuse?” Yet, the alternative is for NATO to sit by and watch Putin turn Ukrainian cities into death zones.
Instead, why not think creatively, and perhaps try to get the United Nations General Assembly to authorize such a humanitarian air corridor? That would give an international green light to the project.
“There is a risk here, but there are no options that are zero risk,” Breedlove says. “There is already a risk of nuclear exchange. If the Ukrainians do too good a job on the ground, Putin may pop a battlefield nuclear weapon, just because he’s making no progress.”
Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian nuclear reactors already constitute a nuclear threat.
Indeed, Putin is constantly playing the nuclear card, hinting at nuclear war and claiming sanctions mean the West is at war with Russia. “If we are going to constantly accede to his demands, it will be a long 20 years [before Putin steps down],” Breedlove says.
Volker also warns of the danger of the U.S. “sending [Putin] a signal that so long as you have nukes, you can do whatever you want. That is an incentive for anyone in the world to try to get nukes. It is an incentive for conflict,” he told me.
Instead, Americans should remember that the United States has faced down the Russian nuclear weapons before, during the Berlin airlift and the Cuban missile crisis. “We’ve been in a nuclear standoff during the Cold War and have faced the Russians for decades,” I was told by retired Adm. James Stavridis, also a former NATO commander.
“It is critical to the Western order [in which dictators don’t launch unprovoked wars and destroy other countries] that Putin not be rewarded for his actions. We should be prudent, but demonstrate the U.S. and its allies are capable of dealing with his threats.”
Beyond a humanitarian no-fly zone, there are other ideas for protecting Ukraine’s air space that haven’t been tried yet.
Poland unexpectedly agreed Tuesday night to transfer 28 used MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, whose pilots know how to fly them. There are still big hurdles, like how to get the planes to Ukraine and how to fulfill U.S. pledges to replace them. But Washington should try to get these planes delivered with utmost speed.
The White House should also be focused on how to send Ukraine ground-based air defense systems that are capable of hitting Russian planes and missiles at medium and high altitudes. “You want to get air defenses up higher than Stingers,” says former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, referring to the ground-to-air missiles we belatedly are sending to Ukraine.
The bottom line: As fast as the West has awakened over the past two weeks, it must act even more swiftly to prevent Putin from wreaking destruction from the air that rivals what Hitler did to London. If Putin’s nuclear blackmail prevents us from saving Ukraine, who knows where he will threaten next.
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