Transfer of NATO Aircraft to Ukraine Falls Through as Zelensky Resumes His Campaign for a No Fly Zone

(AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

It seemed as though history was about to be made on Monday night. NATO members who had formerly been members of the Warsaw Pact had agreed to transfer about 70 Soviet-built warplanes to Ukraine. The aircraft, 56 MiG-29s from Poland (28 aircraft), Slovakia (12), and Bulgaria (16), and 14 Su-25s from Bulgaria, were supposed to be moved to an airbase in Poland. There they would meet up with Ukrainian pilots. A week or so of transition training was scheduled as the NATO versions of the Soviet aircraft have vastly superior avionics and flight controls. The pilots would then ferry the new aircraft to airbases in Ukraine.


The deal came unraveled today as the question of logistics raised its head. The Ukrainian ground crews don’t know how to maintain the NATO aircraft. The spare parts for avionics and engines are different. The only viable alternative open was to imitate Soviet pilots flying MiG-15s from airbases north of the Yalu River to attack UN forces operating in and over Korea. No one thought that was a top-10 idea.

This brings me to my second point. It is nearly axiomatic that bad ideas never die; they just get recycled for all eternity. One of those truly bad ideas is the idea of a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, presumably enforced by NATO aircraft. The idea is that such a no-fly zone would prevent Russian attack and logistics aircraft from operating under the threat of being shot down. The most famous example of a no-fly zone is the one no fly zones are those we established over Northern Iraq that lasted from 1991 until 2003 (Operation PROVIDE COMFORT, which morphed into Operation NORTHERN WATCH) and Southern Iraq from 1992 to 2003 (Operation SOUTHERN WATCH) [hat tip to dmacleo in the comments for reminding me of this]. However, the mission there was markedly different in it targeted a ragtag and wildly incompetent Iraqi Air Force and operated in a relatively low-threat environment. A no-fly zone over Ukraine would bring NATO aircraft into contact with a well-equipped (though marginally trained) air force in an environment dominated by state-of-the-art surface-to-air missile systems. Once announced, there would inevitably be combat between the two sides, SAMs would be fired at NATO aircraft, and NATO aircraft would engage SAMs. Some of the SAMs harassing NATO aircraft would be located in Russian territory, so an additional politico-military problem of dealing with them would have to be addressed.


In short, it is impossible to see how this arrangement works without escalation into something no one smarter than Adam Kinzinger wants.

About the time the aircraft transfer was unspooling, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky was pleading with NATO to do exactly that.

Driving the news: Zelensky, who remains in Ukraine under siege from Vladimir Putin, said in a statement to Axios provided through an adviser: “If the West does this, Ukraine will defeat the aggressor with much less blood.”

  • “The sanctions are heading in the right direction. In addition to disconnecting the Russian Central Bank from SWIFT and providing more Stingers and anti-tank weapons, we need the West to impose a no-fly zone over significant parts of Ukraine,” Zelensky said.
  • “Ukraine can beat the aggressor. We are proving this to the world. But our allies must also do their part.”


You have to admire the game. Ukraine is in a position that looks pretty hopeless (Wishful Thinking Aside, Putin Will ‘Win’ in the End — but at What Cost?). If abject surrender is off the table, his best play is to drag this out into a protracted Chechen-like war that inflicts tens of thousands of casualties on Russia. As casualties mount and Ukrainian cities are rubbled, the Russians will inevitably revert to their nature, let the patina of civilization fall away, and start treating Ukrainian civilians like they treated German civilians in East Prussia in 1945. This ensures sanctions will remain in place for at least a generation.


Still, no matter the heroic defense by its people and armed forces, Ukraine does not represent a vital national security interest of the United States. Engaging in combat with Russia over Ukraine doesn’t take anyone where they really wish to go. We should continue to arm and finance Ukraine for as long as that government and people want to fight and, in the process, bleed the Russians and grind their economy into the dirt.* This should be a painful, bloody experience for Russia that leaves it a destitute international pariah with a demoralized populace. Ukraine may not represent a vital national interest, but it presents Western Europe and us the opportunity to show Putin exactly where he fits in the food chain.

Under no circumstances should we allow ourselves to be egged into fighting a real war when it is not necessary nor in our interests.

*For the trolls who’ve plagued the comments for the past week claiming that Russia will avoid sanctions by working with China to create an alternative to SWIFT and the dollar, please see your shrink and get your Thorazine dose adjusted. The Chinese system, the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System or CIPS, has less than 200 participating banks and uses SWIFT’s infrastructure. Russia’s GDP is the equivalent of New York or Texas. None of that says “a new financial system is at hand.” John McCain, for all of his faults, was right about Russia. He said, “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.” He was right.




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