A remarkable exchange took place earlier this week between the United States and Poland, which shares a long border with Ukraine and likely would be first to get hit by Russian forces if the war expands beyond Ukrainian territory. The exchange was not only embarrassing, highlighting the U.S. State Department’s incompetence, but it underscores what can only be described as a complete absence of strategy among the NATO allies, which appear to have no end-game and no off-ramps in mind for Ukraine and Russia.
Here’s what happened. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Sunday that Poland has a “green light” to provide fighter jets to the Ukrainian air force, adding that the U.S. was working with Poland to find a way to replace MiG-29 jets (which Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly and fight) that might be sent to Ukraine with American F-16s.
News quickly spread on Monday that the U.S. and Poland had reached such a deal, and that dozens of Polish MiG-29s were in fact going to supplement Ukraine’s war effort. If true, that would have been a shocking escalation on the part of NATO. It’s easy to see how Russia could then claim that Poland, by putting its own warplanes in the fight, was now a belligerent in the conflict, and then justify expanding the war into Eastern Europe.
But it wasn’t true — not quite. Poland, acutely aware of what Moscow’s likely response would be if dozens of Polish warplanes flown by Ukrainian pilots crossed from Poland into Ukraine and started hitting Russian targets, issued a curious statement on Tuesday. The Polish Foreign Ministry said it was ready to deploy, free of charge, all their MiG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, “and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America.”
The statement went on to request that the U.S. “provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities. Poland is ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes. The Polish Government also requests other NATO Allies — owners of MIG-29 jets — to act in the same vein.”
This move by Poland apparently caught the U.S. State Department completely off-guard. Later on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby responded to the Polish proposal, which he said, “shows just some of the complexities this issue presents.”
The prospect of fighter jets “at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America” departing from a U.S./NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance. It is simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it. We will continue to consult with Poland and our other NATO allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one.
What can we conclude from this bizarre back-and-forth? First, that Blinken’s “green light” comment Sunday was made without consulting Poland or our other NATO allies. Second, that Poland’s statement Tuesday was a not-too-subtle attempt to shift the responsibility for the entire scheme to the United States. Essentially, Poland was saying that if the U.S. government wants to aide Ukraine by giving it warplanes, Poland would not be the one to transfer or even facilitate the transfer of those aircraft onto the battlefield. They would have to come from a U.S. air base, not Poland.
Lastly, the U.S. response reveals that despite Blinken’s reckless comment, the U.S. has not thought seriously about how any of this would work, and what might or might not give Moscow a casus belli to attack Polish or NATO targets in Eastern Europe.
In other words, there is no NATO strategy, either to assist Ukraine in a way that would turn the tide of the war or to imagine an end-game that’s something less than a total Russian defeat. Last week, Blinken articulated what can best be described as a maximalist policy for the war: “We have to sustain this until it stops, until the war is over, Russian forces leave, the Ukrainian people regain their independence, their sovereignty, their territorial integrity. We’re committed to doing that.”
So the apparent position of the U.S. government is that it must help Ukraine to bring about a complete humiliating Russian withdrawal, something like the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 — or the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, for that matter. If the NATO allies are worried that Russia will widen the war over a couple dozen Polish MiG-29s, what do they think the Kremlin will do to avoid the kind of defeat that Blinken has laid out? Have they thought about the possibility that Russia would use tactical nuclear weapons to avoid that kind of defeat? It sure doesn’t seem like it.
Setting all that aside, though, the U.S. and our NATO allies have just demonstrated to Russia and the entire world that we have no plan to provide Ukraine with warplanes, let alone tanks or troops or other advanced weapon systems. The NATO allies obviously don’t even agree on how that might be done in theory, and they apparently are not talking to one another about it behind closed doors but issuing embarrassing and contradictory statements in public.
As my colleague Eddie Scarry notes, all of this blows up the polite fiction that President Joe Biden is providing strong NATO leadership, and that the alliance is solid and united in confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It also blows up the notion, increasingly popular among neocons in the corporate press and in Washington, that NATO is able to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine and can be pressured into doing so. If the Poles won’t even allow its MiG-29s to be transferred to Ukraine via Polish airspace, why would they agree to send sorties out from Poland to engage and shoot down Russian warplanes? Why would smaller NATO allies in the Baltics?
They won’t — and they shouldn’t, because doing so would be an act of war that would pull the entire NATO alliance into an armed conflict with Russia. Likewise, funneling warplanes and other heavy weapons into Ukraine will bring NATO right up to and arguably well past the line of belligerence. To paraphrase the Pentagon, the proposal is not a tenable one.