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Opinion Letting Poland send fighter jets to Ukraine would heighten the risks of a wider war

A woman walks outside a maternity hospital that was damaged by Russian shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)
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As Russia rains relentless fire on Ukrainian cities, the country’s leaders have been pleading for more Western help. But the United States is rightly wary of a proposal to send the Ukrainians MiG-29 fighter jets — a move that would bring small benefits on the battlefield and entail large risks of a wider war.

The dilemma of how to help Ukraine without triggering a global conflict will only get more painful as Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps doubling down on his losing bet in Ukraine. The latest warning of Putin’s recklessness came from a senior British official, who warned Post journalists on Wednesday that “we’ve got good reason to be concerned about possible use of nonconventional weapons” by Russia down the road.

Putin keeps climbing the ladder of escalation. Blocked from the easy victory he expected in Ukraine, he is gradually turning that country’s cities into rubble. Already derided as a war criminal, he seems to be following the Russia mafia code known as “bespredel,” which means “without limits.”

Visceral images of the suffering and courage of the Ukrainian people are driving the MiG debate, and an earlier discussion of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone. The Russians are bombing maternity wards, schools, churches. Our hearts tell us to intervene, whatever the danger — just as they would if we were watching a child being strangled before our eyes.

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But our heads should counsel caution. The Ukraine crisis carries a genuine risk of direct military conflict between the United States and Russia. And that, in turn, could escalate into a catastrophic nuclear confrontation. The West needs cool heads, not hot ones, to successfully navigate what could become the most dangerous nuclear standoff in history — riskier even than the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, because it is taking place against the backdrop of a hot shooting war.

The Pentagon was right to reject a proposal by Poland to transfer the MiGs to beleaguered Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had opened the door to that possibility Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” when he said the Polish proposal had a “green light.” But Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday that Poland’s plan to transfer the planes, via the United States, was not “tenable.” Kirby went further on Wednesday, calling it a “high-risk” plan that could draw a “significant” Russian reaction, while the benefits would be “low.”

“The intelligence community has assessed the transfer of MiG-29s to Ukraine may be mistaken as escalatory and could result in a significant Russian reaction that might increase the prospects of a military escalation with NATO,” Kirby said.

Military utility should be the yardstick for any Western assistance now. Sending used MiGs to Ukraine from Poland, as the government in Warsaw had proposed, doesn’t meet that test. The Ukrainian air force already has several squadrons of MiGs, but they haven’t been very effective. Rather than seeking more MiGs, Ukraine should expand the tactics that have already proved successful — antitank and antiaircraft weapons, such as the Javelins and Stingers that the United States and its allies are providing in increasing numbers.

Ukraine’s success in slowing Russia’s invasion has resulted from two factors. First, the Ukrainian army has used its antitank weapons to pound the attackers. As Russian columns move down roads, Ukrainian soldiers fire at them with devastating accuracy. Second, the Ukrainians have been surprisingly successful in using air-defense weapons, not just the shoulder-fired Stingers, but larger systems they were able to shield from the Russians. They need more of both — tank and aircraft killers — from the West.

The British official told Post journalists that “the best way of dealing with” Russia’s air power is antiaircraft weapons, and that Britain was planning to send more of its “Starstreak” high-velocity missiles. Like Stingers, they are shoulder-fired, but they are laser-guided and, according to experts, are harder to jam than the infrared-guided, U.S.-made Stingers.

As Western strategists deliberate responses to Putin’s aggression, they are caught between the historical analogies of the 20th century’s two world wars, which led to unspeakable suffering and the deaths of more than 100 million people. The lesson of August 1914 is to avoid lockstep escalation and seek diplomatic compromise. The lesson of Munich 1938 is to avoid appeasement and meet threats with force. As Ukraine bleeds, the United States and its allies are struggling to decide which lesson is most applicable.

What’s the off-ramp for Putin? Hopefully, there’s still a diplomatic path. Otherwise, his off-ramp is defeat, and the challenge is how to achieve that result without a global catastrophe.