The ongoing MiG-29 fiasco in Ukraine is a prime example of the incompetence of President Joe Biden’s administration. America was promised that electing Biden would put the “adults back in charge.” Instead, we’re led by a geriatric man surrounded by ideologues whose attitudes were formed in university safe-space bubbles and later solidified at Georgetown cocktail parties. (“Don’t like the price of gas? Get a Tesla or ride the bus, peasant.”)
Not to worry, though, Biden has dispatched Vice President Kamala Harris to Poland to solve the problem. The diplomatic and military affairs odyssey of trying to replenish the Ukrainian Air Force’s inventory of Soviet-era combat aircraft is illustrative of the descent of the American foreign policy establishment.
They’re said to be dragging their feet on the transfer of combat aircraft because Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened war should the transfer occur. This is highly unlikely — more so, given the less-than-impressive performance of the Russian military.
If Talleyrand said of the restored Bourbon dynasty after the abdication of Napoleon, “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” then our foreign policy elite could be said to have “Learned nothing and forgotten everything.”
In 1950, as the Cold War was ramping up, the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China gave permission for North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung (Kim Jong-un’s grandfather) to invade South Korea, which was then garrisoned by a small number of U.S. troops. The Soviets provided tanks, aircraft, infantry weapons, a large amount of ammunition, and other supplies to the North Korean military. The Soviets also sent combat pilots and anti-aircraft gunners to North Korea. These men killed Americans in combat.
But because an open admission of belligerent involvement would have serious ramifications for escalating tensions between the two nuclear powers (the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949), the Soviet assistance was covert. Soviet pilots were instructed not to speak Russian over their radios and their MiG-15s flew with the markings of the North Korean People’s Army Air Force or the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force, although American pilots often overheard the Soviet pilots speaking or swearing in Russian during the stress of aerial combat.
Some six Soviet pilots achieved “ace” status (downing five or more aircraft), with Soviets downing at least 142 U.N. (mostly U.S.) aircraft. A decade later, the Soviet Union provided significant support to North Vietnam in its Cold War proxy war with the South. In a speech in Moscow in 1971, senior North Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp admitted, “We would like to carry on this mission together with the Soviet Union, because no one can do it without the Soviet Union.”
About 3,000 Soviet military advisors were stationed in North Vietnam during the war. As in Korea, they killed Americans in direct combat. Some 16 of them were, in turn, killed, compared to the 58,281 Americans killed and more than 1.5 million Vietnamese lost on both sides.
Soviet involvement included the training of North Vietnamese fighter pilots and anti-aircraft crews starting in 1964, as well as the manning of anti-aircraft batteries in North Vietnam — successfully shooting down American combat aircraft. Ironically, these Soviet anti-aircraft personnel were mainly Ukrainian. Soviet commando teams also conducted missions against American targets and Soviet snipers may have even operated in South Vietnam.
As an aside, in 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union, I helped stand up and manage a cargo aircraft refueling business in Kamchatka. The region’s vice governor at the time was Boris Sinchenko, an ethnic Ukrainian. Many of the people in Kamchatka and to the north in Magadan (the logistics hub of what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn dubbed the “The Gulag Archipelago” ) were Ukrainian—exiled there as Stalin sought to extinguish the troublesome embers of Ukrainian national identity.
In a rare moment of vodka-assisted candor, Sinchenko (also rendered Zinchenko) told me he was an “air traffic controller” in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Sinchenko’s euphemism in aid of polite conversation couldn’t hide what he was really doing in Hanoi—he was operating air defense radars that aimed to kill Americans.
Such was the Cold War. Both sides probed and tested each other’s will on the periphery, often resulting in deadly confrontations. But both sides tightly controlled the ramp to escalation, each wanting to avoid a general war that might involve nuclear weapons.
In today’s context, the issue of MiG-29s is no different from the provision of Javelin and other antitank and antiaircraft missiles to Ukraine, a sovereign nation. Further, these arms shipments — regardless of Putin’s threats — are significantly less provocative than the Soviets directly killing American servicemen in the theater of combat in Korea and Vietnam.
For U.S. and NATO assistance to Ukraine to rise to that level, we’d have to see American and allied fighter aircraft, piloted by Americans and operating from Ukrainian bases — but pretending to be Ukrainian — directly engaging Russian forces. To again draw from history, even that wouldn’t be considered a declaration of war by longstanding Cold War precedent.