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Opinion For the dangerous skies over Ukraine, a calibrated NATO response works best

A woman carries her child as displaced Ukrainians arrive at the Lviv train station on March 5 to flee Russia's invasion. (Miguel A Lopes/EPA-EFE-Shutterstock)

Once again, Russian President Vladimir Putin has asserted that his war against Ukraine is going according to plan. This time he said so in a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday, according to an official Kremlin report. His actions, though, belie this claim. Specifically, Mr. Putin has shut down the last vestiges of independent media in the country and ramped up threats of punishment for truthful reporting such that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other international media have been forced to suspend their operations in Russia. This is not what he would do if Russia’s invasion force had a good story to tell. Due to fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russian troops failed to meet their commander in chief’s expectation of swift victory and its combat methods have degenerated into increasingly indiscriminate attacks against Ukraine’s people and civilian infrastructure.

Mr. Putin’s war is not going well for him. For the United States, its NATO allies and all others in the world, the question now is how to make it go even worse.

It’s a doubly urgent question since Russia’s military — even if not headed for outright victory soon — might retain more than enough firepower to inflict devastation on Ukraine and its people for many more days or weeks. Something must be done to enable Ukraine to withstand the onslaught and force Russia to accept a real cease-fire — as opposed to the phony local truces, intended to allow civilians to flee, which the Russians violated over the weekend.

The Biden administration has been wise to reject a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine, even though one of the people who has called for it is Ukraine’s redoubtable president, Volodymyr Zelensky. There would be no way to enforce such a measure without large-scale deployment of U.S. and other NATO aircraft, and their engagement in direct combat with Russian forces. This would dramatically escalate the war in pursuit of relatively marginal benefits: most of the damage being done to Ukraine right now is from ground-launched artillery and missiles, not from high-explosive weapons delivered by Russian aircraft. Indeed, Ukraine has already had some success shooting down helicopters and planes with its own arms, including mobile antiaircraft missiles supplied by NATO.

A better plan would be to continue that vital flow of weaponry while enabling Poland to send its available Soviet-vintage fighter aircraft to Ukraine for use by the latter country’s own pilots. The United States would have to offset Poland’s transfers to Ukraine by supplying new U.S.-made planes. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed Sunday that the Biden administration would support this three-way exchange.

To be sure, there are potential downsides to this option, not the least being the fact that Russia has already destroyed key Ukrainian airfields. Also, Mr. Putin, who has already likened economic sanctions to a “declaration of war,” could treat aircraft transfers as a provocation. Recent history, however, shows that he will invent provocations even when the West shows restraint, and that Ukraine cannot be left at the mercy of Russian artillery. The right response therefore is to extend as much military aid to Ukraine as it can effectively use, without triggering negative security consequences for Europe and the United States. The world now depends on the ability of the Biden administration and U.S. allies to strike that balance.

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