Op-Ed: Since the West isn’t supplying Ukraine with MiGs, it just failed Putin’s test


Just when it seemed most important for the United States to give Ukraine more powerful tools to repel Russia’s brutal bombings, President Biden refused to involve the US Poland’s plan to transfer MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. He did it, he said, to avoid World War III. But in doing so he inadvertently increased the risk of such a war.

American reluctance to provide air support reduces the likelihood of a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. Even without direct US support, the Ukrainian military has valiantly slowed down the Russian invasion. But in response, Russia began bombing cities indiscriminately, block by block, killing and wounding, destroying infrastructure and choking off vital supplies.

Chernihiv (285,000 inhabitants), Kharkiv (1.5 million), Sumy (265,000) and Mariupol (446,000) become a familiar landscape of death and destruction, like Guernica, like Stalingrad, like Grozny, like Aleppo. Now the capital Kyiv is at stake. The pleas of pregnant women fleeing a bombed-out maternity hospital, the sight of bodies piling up on city streets, and other horrors of war give Russian President Vladimir Putin confidence that the pain will eventually bring Ukraine to its knees will. With every mile Russia gains, retreat becomes less likely.

If Putin succeeds, he will not stop in Ukraine. The specter of popular uprisings and uprisings would haunt him. He would fear the neighboring countries, all NATO members, who would support his enemies. He fears a spill over to Russia. He fears being treated as a war criminal if he loses.

Controlling Ukraine would also give Russia more resources to continue. For one thing, most of the Soviet ICBMs were made in Ukraine.

Putin already has good reason to believe that he can intimidate NATO by invading other nations. After threatening to attack NATO countries aiding Ukraine, he must have rejoiced when politicians vowed not to provoke Russia.

Putin will have the perfect opportunity to test whether Biden will indeed defend or continue to appease “every inch” of NATO territory. On the map of Europe you can see a deserted piece of land on the Baltic Sea, surrounded by two NATO countries, Lithuania and Poland. This is the Russian province of Kaliningrad, home of the Kremlin’s Baltic Fleet. NATO could block Kaliningrad and isolate this Russian outpost. To reduce this perceived vulnerability, Putin could invade Poland and Lithuania to wrest a land corridor to Kaliningrad from Belarus, a Russian ally. The corridor would be the Suwalki Gap, a 60-mile strip of flat land.

Putin will have a strong hand to test NATO’s resolve there. If he sticks to his December ultimatum that NATO should pull out of Eastern Europe, rally troops and threaten nuclear retaliation if NATO tries to stop him, how would we react? The only move that might get his attention would be the threat of a nuclear response. But would the American public support such risk-taking knowing it could lead to nuclear war? Would we really want to risk sacrificing major American cities just to protect the Suwalki Gap?

Precisely because Putin knows we would face this dilemma – and given our record in Ukraine and Afghanistan – our promise to defend allies would not deter him from an invasion. The US then faces a choice: defend allies against the advancing Russian tanks and face the prospect of a Russian nuclear strike, or abandon our allies. We may have to decide within hours or even minutes how to respond.

The MiG-29s from Poland would help us avert this scenario. They would undermine Putin’s power to hit targets in Ukraine such as hospitals and residential areas. They would give Ukraine more opportunities to hit Russian bombers and missile complexes that US-supplied missiles cannot reach. Ukrainian pilots in Polish MiGs could buy time for economic sanctions to hurt Putin at home and perhaps time for him to question Russia’s stance on China and India. Crucially, Putin would see that he cannot scare the West into inaction, which might persuade him not to test our resolve any further.

But Biden is not signaling that determination.

I feel less safe here in the US now than I did before Biden vetoed the MiG-29 transfer. Putin may test NATO sooner rather than later while Biden is president.

Russian aggression against Ukraine shows that we are entering a moment in world history when caution is riskier than boldness, a moment when we need a president who can lead like Winston Churchill and Volodymyr Zelensky, not like Neville Chamberlain.

Mikhail Alexseev, Professor of International Relations at San Diego State University, is the author of Without Warning: Threat Assessment, Intelligence, and Global Struggle. Op-Ed: Since the West isn’t supplying Ukraine with MiGs, it just failed Putin’s test

Caroline Bleakley

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