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Mikhail Alexseev is a professor of international relations at San Diego State University. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.
Just when it seemed most critical for the United States to give Ukraine more powerful tools to blunt Russia’s brutal bombardments, President Joe Biden refused to get the U.S. involved in Poland’s plan to transfer MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. He did it, he said, to avoid World War III. But in doing so, he inadvertently raised the risk of such a war.
American timidity on air support reduces the likelihood of Russia’s retreat from Ukraine. Even without direct support from the U.S., the Ukrainian military has valiantly slowed the Russian invasion. But in response, Russia started indiscriminately bombarding cities, block by block, killing and wounding, degrading infrastructure, choking off vital supplies.
Chernihiv (population 285,000), Kharkiv (1.5 million), Sumy (265,000) and Mariupol (446,000) are reduced to a familiar landscape of death and ruin, like Guernica, like Stalingrad, like Grozny, like Aleppo. The capital, Kyiv, is now on the line. The pleas of pregnant women escaping from a bombed-out maternity hospital, the sight of dead bodies piling up in city streets and other horrors of war give Russian President Vladimir Putin confidence that the hurt will eventually bring Ukraine to its knees. A retreat is less likely with every mile that Russia gains.
If Putin succeeds, he won’t stop in Ukraine. The specter of popular uprisings and insurgency would haunt him. He would fear the neighboring states, all NATO members, lending support to his foes. He would fear a spillover into Russia. He’d fear being treated as a war criminal if he loses.
Controlling Ukraine would also give Russia more resources to press onward. For one, most Soviet ICBMs were made in Ukraine.
Putin already has good reason to believe he can intimidate NATO into acquiescence as he invades other nations. After threatening to strike NATO states that help Ukraine, he must have rejoiced when policymakers pledged not to provoke Russia.
Putin will have a perfect opportunity to test whether Biden will indeed “defend every inch” of NATO territory, or will continue to appease. On the map of Europe, you can see a forlorn piece of land on the Baltic Sea, boxed in by two NATO states, Lithuania and Poland. This is Russia’s province of Kaliningrad, home to the Kremlin’s Baltic fleet. NATO could blockade Kaliningrad, isolating that outpost of Russia. To reduce this perceived vulnerability, Putin might invade Poland and Lithuania to seize a land corridor to Kaliningrad from Belarus, a Russian ally. The corridor would be the Suwalki Gap, a 60-mile-long sliver of flatland.
Putin will have a strong hand to test NATO’s resolve there. If he perseveres with his December ultimatum that NATO should move out of Eastern Europe, masses troops and threatens nuclear retaliation if NATO tries to stop him, how would we respond? The only gambit that might get his attention would be to threaten a nuclear response. But would the American public support such brinkmanship, knowing it could lead to nuclear war? Would we really want to risk sacrificing major American cities just to protect the Suwalki Gap?
Precisely because Putin knows we would face this dilemma — and given our record in Ukraine and Afghanistan — our pledge to defend allies would not deter him from invading. The U.S. will then face its choice: defend allies against the advancing Russian tanks and face the prospect of Russia’s nuclear blow, or abandon our allies. We may have to decide within hours, even minutes, how to respond.
The MiG-29s from Poland would help us avert this scenario. They would undercut Putin’s power to hit targets in Ukraine like hospitals and residential areas. They’d give Ukraine more options to hit Russian bombers and missile complexes that can’t be reached by the missiles the U.S. has provided. Ukrainian pilots in Polish MiGs could buy time for economic sanctions to hurt Putin at home, and perhaps time for him to question Russia’s standing with China and India. Crucially, Putin would see he cannot scare the West into inaction, which might persuade him not to further test our resolve.
But Biden is not signaling that resolve.
I feel less safe here in the U.S. now than before Biden vetoed the MiG-29 transfer. Putin may test NATO sooner rather than later, while Biden is president.
Russian aggression against Ukraine shows that we are entering a moment in world history when caution is riskier than audacity, a moment when we need a president who can lead like Winston Churchill and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, not like Neville Chamberlain.