As Russia’s ground offensive in Ukraine gathers momentum, and begins to encircle Kyiv with more force, the West needs to consider what options it has. Despite the heroic efforts of the Ukrainians, facilitated by a deluge of weapons from NATO countries, “quantity has a quality all its own,” and the Russians continue to throw massive levels of bombing, long range missiles, and troops at the Ukrainian military and civilian population. The Ukrainians will fight with all their hearts—after all, it is their children, parents, and spouses they are defending. For the west, it is now a question of what else we should be doing. How quickly can we access online assistance? It is obvious that time is critical.
There is no set playbook—the Russians burned that up on day one. Vladimir Putin invaded the sovereign states of neighboring countries without warning or formal declaration. Russian war machinery regularly infringes on neighboring sovereign states and violates the Geneva Conventions that guide combat operations. This includes artillery and mortar strikes on civilians as well as attacks against hospitals and medical facilities.
You can expect widespread looting and mass rapes to increase as well as organized plunder and the sacking of besieged towns. Ramzan Kadyrov from Chech is a notorious violator of all standards of conduct within a war zone. It will be painful to see the video images which will undoubtedly emerge in the coming weeks.
Putin fundamentally violates international law. As a result, the niceties of legal opinion about the responsibilities of “co-belligerents” and “neutral powers” carry far less weight under the circumstances. For Washington and our allies, we need to think not of “on and off” switches in which we do nothing but watch (off) or we go nose to nose with the Russians with boots on the ground and jets in the air (on). Consider our options like a rheostat that we need to dial in. At the moment, the direction is telling us to take greater risk.
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The first is to improve the intelligence that we provide, so it can be of tactical importance and comes in real time. The entire capability of the “unblinking eye” of U.S. intelligence should be essentially placed at the service of the Ukrainians so they know Russian tank movements and maintenance sites, daily intentions for aircraft flights, logistic hubs, fuel depot locations, on and on. The Ukrainians should be given the same target lists that I used during NATO’s air war in Libya.
The second is that the Ukrainians require cyber security and surveillance. Cyber is the “bear that hasn’t growled yet,” perhaps because Putin doesn’t want us to see his specific capabilities. Perhaps their cyber offensive military capability may not be as frightening as we expected, similar to their weak army. The Ukrainians will have to defend their command-and control networks in order for them to remain engaged as NATO moves toward the west. Their networks are likely to be under attack.
Third, the most complicated decisions will come in terms of creating a “no fly zone.” Unlike Libya, where Qaddafi had no nuclear weapons, with Russia we must consider the risks of combat between the U.S.-NATO and Russia escalating after a miscalculation between the forces. It is more sensible to give Ukraine the weapons and sensors they require (and are reasonably capable of handling) in order to establish such a zone than to send U.S. assets into combat.
We need sensors that can be carried around and are easily survivable. These sensors must be able and capable of communicating with U.S. intelligence, which we provide from our systems. Ukrainians have to be able to see what is up in the skies overhead 24 hours a day. Our nation should immediately get drones made by others, including Turkey, to their attention.
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The Russian air force must also be available to intercept any Russian aircraft trying to enter Ukrainian airspace. These include the Stinger missiles, which were provided in large quantities. But they will also need other higher-altitude systems. Numerous candidate systems are available, including the ex-Soviet-Russian weaponry that is still in use by NATO member countries of the eastern part of the Alliance. Although the Iron Dome Israeli system to shoot down missiles should be used for civilian protection, it will require some training and setup. It is important that the Pentagon conducts a worldwide review of all offensive and defense surface-to-air system and moves quickly to transfer them to Ukraine. You can train the Ukrainians at Ramstein Air Force base, Germany, or another NATO base.
We come to the controversial topic of providing combat planes. It appeared that the U.S. had partnered with Poland to provide MIG-29 fighters to Ukraine. However, after Poland demanded they go through U.S.-NATO channels to transport them, the U.S. pulled out. This idea should be pursued. This would give the Ukrainians a tangible moral boost, much like the WWII lend-lease destroiers; it could also add some combat power to their airspace and signal Putin that we will not back down.
Alongside the aviation materials, there are plenty of ground systems that should continue to flow into Ukraine—Javelins, TOWs, small arms ammunition, sniper systems, heavy machine guns, rocket propelled grenades—all of that seems to be moving swiftly and we must keep the pace up. This must all be delivered to Ukraine within days and not weeks or months. This is an important logistic race that we have to win with Russia.
Are all these statements really that provocative? It is, however, less provocative than simply dialing up the rheostat and allowing full combat operations to be conducted by U.S. NATO soldiers on the ground as well as our pilots flying in the sky. We must be able to confront Putin and take the necessary steps against him. He is a formidable opponent that the west can confront with many different options. The West should be aware of all the possibilities, particularly in terms of Russian interference in Ukrainian airspace, as well as continuing to arm Ukraine for hard-fought battles.