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A Ukraine No-Fly Zone Could Start a NATO-Russia War. The West Has Other Options

The active duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings conducted an F-35A Combat Power Exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Jan. 6, 2020. The exercise, which was planned for months, demonstrated their ability to employ a large force of F-35As -- testing readiness in the areas of personnel accountability, aircraft generation, ground operations, flight operations, and combat capability against air and ground targets. A little more than four years after receiving their first combat-coded F35A Lightning II aircraft, Hill's fighter wings have achieved full warfighting capability. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

No No-Fly Zone? No Problem. NATO has other options to help Ukraine and push back against Russian aggression: Over 75 years ago, George Kennan described the DNA of Russian leaders as “neurotic” and embedded with an encompassing “sense of insecurity” and “instinctive fear of the outside world.”

Russian paranoia has not seemingly abated over decades. Putin and the Russian generals in his inner circle all seek nothing less than a deep strategic depth to shield Moscow, akin to the space held by the former Soviet Union. To attain this goal, the Gerasimov Doctrine calls for a modern hybrid form of total war, combining a broad range of military, economic, information, and cyber actions.

Not since the Munich Agreement of 1938 has the West faced such an adventuring, full-fledged military thug, the equivalent of Adolph Hitler. At Munich, the allies ceded the Sudetenland to Hitler.  The decision only emboldened Hitler to greater military adventures, and ultimately into World War II.

Appeasement or non-military half measures will only embolden Putin to push ahead. The inevitable next chapter—like WWII itself—will be that much more dangerous, destructive, and tragic when Putin makes yet more non-negotiable demands. See., e.g., possible assaults on Moldova, and later even on the NATO Baltic states, suggested by Russians’ insecure need for strategic depth.

Putin’s calculatedly deliberate vague threats of “untold consequences” should any democratic nations intervene in any way, seem to have successfully dissuaded European and U.S. leaders.  Unsure of how Putin might react to any even small interventions, Western leaders are frozen, and in that inaction, have emboldened Putin to even more aggressive criminal attacks each succeeding day.

Thus far, the NATO position has been that Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Intimidated Western nations use that technicality to express strong support for Ukraine while refusing to bolster Ukraine’s defense with their own troops in defense of democracy.

Yet Yugoslavia was not a NATO country when NATO intervened to stop genocide and humanitarian tragedy in progress. Kuwait was not a member of NATO when a coalition of NATO and other countries pulled together to defend sovereignty against a thuggish invasion. Libya was not a NATO member when NATO states, acting on behalf of the UN, defended Libyan citizens against the horrific targeting of civilian areas by an unbalanced leader.

One option promoted by Ukrainian President Zelensky and fashionable among media and activists is a no-fly zone enforced by NATO planes. But a no-fly zone would, as numerous leaders have argued, be a probable prescription for a direct air confrontation between NATO and Russian jets. Putin did not react severely when Turkish fighters shot down a Russian jet over their airspace near Syria, but a NATO challenge would undoubtedly draw a military response, with the possibility of a spiraling escalation where Putin feels driven to use nuclear or chemical weapons.

F-22 and F-35

Image: Creative Commons.

Ironically, the model for coming to the defense of Ukraine while maintaining public deniability can be taken from the pages of the Russian playbook itself. And democratic nations with sophisticated weaponry are particularly skilled in the small and clandestine warfare techniques which can turn the tide without risking major forces and openly confronting the Russian leader.  Among the vast options could be:

– Let “volunteers” without insignias—little gray men, to coin a phrase—join the fight, as has begun in small measures. Train them in Europe as a modern version of the international brigades which fought in the Spanish civil war, then send them in.

– Another version of little gray men, quietly and clandestinely insert specialized small tactical combat teams such as U.S Seal teams, British SAS, and French Foreign Legion to conduct activities in support of Ukraine forces. Behind the lines raids on logistics, assaults on command-and-control mobile units, missile sites, etc.

– Specialist cyber and tech units were inserted to disrupt Russian tactical communications.

– Mobile antiaircraft vehicles, more robust than the weaponry being provided now, unmarked or carrying Ukrainian markings, could be brought into Ukraine.

– Western drone units could be deployed inside Ukraine, joining Ukrainian air assets. Drones are easily supplied, so any drone losses could be put down as being Ukrainian.

– More aggressive, but done as a publicly declared peacekeeping action in defense of civilians against attacks from Russian territory under the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P), THAAD antimissile units could be moved into western Ukraine and put into use to defend against Russian missile barrages.

Many in the free world would like to see a more robust and less fearful defense of democracy, a calculated leadership bet that measured military support for Ukraine would not cause a major Russian escalation. And Russia has cried wolf so many times, Putin has so many times made baldly fictional claims to cover wanton war crimes, that Western allies can easily provide military assets while still projecting plausible explanations which make the efforts appear Ukrainian. Putin’s lying has been blatant, ironically setting the West up to obfuscate with more credibility.

In 480 BC, Spartans at Thermopylae fought heroically and tragically; the Ukrainian military is reenacting history’s story. The stand of the Ukrainians may join history’s most heroic legends when the history of the 21st century is written. Might the West find subtle ways to assist militarily?

Richard Sindelar, @FSOProf, a retired U.S. diplomat with three tours of duty in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now serves as Director of the Center for International Studies at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, where he teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy and international law, among others.

Written By

Richard Sindelar (bio), @FSOProf, a retired U.S. diplomat with three tours of duty in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now serves as Director of the Center for International Studies at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, where he teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy and international law, among others.