NATO's failure to organize the transfer of fighter jets to Ukraine is an embarrassing stain on an alliance that has made so much of its support for Kyiv in the face of Russian invasion, former senior NATO officials have told Newsweek.
The plan's collapse could deepen Ukrainian animosity towards NATO and encourage Russian aggression, the officials said, with the alliance unwilling to risk open confrontation with Moscow even at the cost of mounting Ukrainian casualties.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said this week he has "cooled" on the idea of NATO membership, given the hesitance of alliance members to admit Ukraine or help close its skies to Russian jets wreaking havoc on its troops and civilians.
Alexander Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary-General of NATO, told Newsweek the failure is "very debilitating at a time when we're trying to be shoulder to shoulder with the Ukrainians." The plan to provide fighter jets "looks dead in the water," Vershbow said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken revived Ukrainian hopes this weekend when he said NATO states had the "green light" to send their Russian-made aircraft to Ukraine.
But this quickly fell apart, with Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby saying the U.S. would not agree to Poland's proposal to hand MiG-29 aircraft over to the U.S. to pass them on to the Ukrainians.
"It's unfortunate that the whole issue did get blown out of proportion," Vershbow said.
"It's not the silver bullet that's going to deal with the attacks on civilians. Most of those are coming not from aircraft, but from artillery and rockets and such.
"But it is very embarrassing that the administration seemed to greenlight it's saying they wouldn't stand in the way and then had second thoughts."
A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that the U.S. is still "surging security assistance to Ukraine" along with its partners and allies.
"Over the past week and a half, the United States has delivered more than $240 million worth of security assistance to Ukraine, and we have committed more than $1 billion worth over the past year," they said.
These deliveries include "the weapons and systems we believe Ukraine needs most to defend themselves against Russia's aggression, such as anti-armor and air defense weapons."
The spokesperson continued: "However, after a review by the Pentagon and the intelligence community and extensive consultations with our NATO allies, we have concerns about the transfer of additional fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force.
"The Pentagon assessed that adding aircraft to Ukraine's inventory is not likely to significantly change the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force relative to Russia's capabilities.
"The intelligence community assessed that the transfer of MiG-29s to Ukraine may be mistaken as escalatory and could result in a significant reaction by Russia that might increase the prospects of a conflict with NATO.
"We believe there are alternative options that are much better suited to support Ukraine's military in its fight against Russia's aggression. That includes material we have already provided and new capabilities we are working to deliver now."
NATO's bungling of the fighter jets question may also encourage more aggression from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who preys on weakness and disarray among his Western adversaries.
Fabrice Pothier, a former NATO director of policy planning, told Newsweek the confusion around the fighter jets is "pretty embarrassing."
He added: "Basically we are openly showing how we are restricting ourselves to some pretty minimalistic positions on how we should help Ukraine."
Pothier—now a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the CEO of Rasmussen Global—said: "There are certain types of risks that clearly NATO is not willing to take, which I think is a mistake because we've been there and it does not work.
"Fundamentally Putin stops, or at least changes calculus, when he faces strength, not weakness. When he faces weakness or ambiguity, he goes for it. NATO is following the usual Putin playbook, where he has set the red lines and NATO is obliging."
Vershbow warned that NATO hesitance plays into Russian hands.
"It's also unfortunate because they expressed the rationale that it could be seen by the Russians as escalatory; basically letting the Russians draw out red lines at will and we back down on something that is really just an augmentation of the capability that the Ukrainians already have," he said.
"I was mainly supportive of the fighter jet option as a way of defusing the no-fly zone issue, but now both of them are kind of bleeding wounds again."
There is still more NATO can do to help the Ukrainians close the skies to Russian aircraft, but every option comes with risks.
The much-discussed no-fly zone has been repeatedly rejected by U.S. and NATO leaders, given it would entail direct military confrontation with the Russians.
"A no-fly zone is not a silver bullet," Pothier said. "It's a combat operation that requires very intensive use of pretty advanced capabilities. But I think that there might be other ways to do it, including augmenting the Ukrainian air defense systems."
Ukraine is already being flooded with shoulder-launched anti-aircraft weapons, but these cannot hit targets at high altitudes or intercept missiles.
Its anti-air defenses are still partly operational despite Russian attacks. Moscow's failure to neutralize the network entirely is one of its most glaring military errors of the invasion to date. But Ukraine's anti-air arsenal is being degraded.
NATO nations could transfer Russian-made equipment—such as the S-300 anti-air system—to Ukraine to bolster their defense. Moscow would no doubt protest and threaten retaliation, but, Pothier said: "Nothing is risk free, standing by also has its own risk."
Russia may yet escalate the situation even without NATO provocation. Putin's troops are increasingly relying on mass and indiscriminate artillery and missile strikes on Ukrainian cities and positions, whether military targets or civilian.
Western officials have warned that Putin may use chemical weapons as he tries to force Ukraine to surrender. The Russian president has already ordered his nuclear forces onto high alert, a threat the U.S. and NATO decided not to mirror.
As the war wears on, NATO and its members may have to draw their own red lines. "We're letting him consider that actually, nuclear blackmail does work," Pothier said.
"Between what we have now—which is NATO basically standing by the sidelines, quite frankly, and focusing on its own territory but the war is happening elsewhere—and being completely sucked into that war, I think there are many things that NATO could do and should do, which are not happening."
"It's a pretty sad show to see—it's 2014 repeated," he added, referring to Russia's seizure of Crimea and the separatist uprisings in eastern Ukraine.
"It's easy to be united when you don't have to take the risk of trying to make Putin fail and bring that war to an end.
"It does feel a bit obscene to read some of the NATO statements, with how strong they are about their own defense and collective defense, when you have thousands of Ukrainian civilians who are dying."
NATO has always publicly defended its open-door membership policy for Ukraine, but has been hesitant to go further. The 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest agreed that Ukraine would one day become a member, but Kyiv never received the Membership Action Plan that would set it on the path.
Potential NATO membership for Ukraine is a key Russian grievance. Any peace deal will likely force Kyiv to adopt neutrality, replacing NATO ambitions with a security deal guaranteed by major NATO nations like the U.S., Turkey, France, Germany, or the U.K.
In hindsight, 14 years of NATO strategy on Ukraine appears to have been a failure.
"It simply confirms that the 2008 decision was completely bungled and how it was handled," Vershbow said.
"It raised Ukrainian and Georgian expectations with no actual intention of even moving forward procedurally, much less the final political decision of membership.
"It ended up demoralizing the Ukrainians and leaving them much more in the Russian crosshairs than would have been the case if we had deferred the whole issue."
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