NATO Needs Realistic, Constructive Solutions for Russia-Ukraine Conflict | Opinion

The first month of Russia's deplorable war of aggression in Ukraine has left Western observers horrified. However, as Russian strikes targeting key cities and transport junctions degenerated into a barbarous war of siege and attrition, punditry has grown increasingly unrealistic, if not hysterical.

Professional journalists, media pundits (including retired military brass) and politicians have attempted to drag the United States and NATO into war by imposing a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace. This would require NATO forces to destroy Russian aircraft and defense systems. Such action would significantly escalate the fighting, increase hostilities between two nuclear-armed adversaries and accelerate the likelihood of a general European war.

Prominent national security figures—especially retired military officers—should know better. While it feels satisfying to talk tough, what they are advocating is impractical, irresponsible and potentially calamitous. The present circumstances demand greater sobriety.

For instance, the notion of a rump Ukrainian state waging a longer, smaller war is gaining traction. As the Washington Post reports, the United States and its allies are drafting contingency plans to support a government-in-exile. This move could accommodate an insurgency that strikes vulnerable Russian supply lines and intensifies Moscow's logistical headaches.

Perhaps this proposition appeals to Washington policymakers who cut their teeth on the receiving end of unconventional warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, this strategy comes with risks. A guerrilla war will undoubtedly bleed Russian forces in Ukraine. It will also contribute to the deaths of Ukrainian partisans and civilians.

Meanwhile, the spillover potential is real. Insurgencies require a sanctuary. Russia may not tolerate a NATO state—say, Romania or Poland—harboring and outfitting remnants of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, paramilitary personnel or armed civilians and irregulars. To the contrary, such activity might prompt a retaliatory broadside against a U.S. treaty ally. Of course, a NATO member on the alliance's eastern frontier may welcome a strong American military response, given the unequal threat distribution posed by Russian aggression. But American strategists should think twice before mounting this escalation ladder.

Biden and Macron NATO
U.S. President Joe Biden (L) talks with French President Emmanuel Macron as they arrive to attend a North Atlantic Council meeting during a NATO summit at NATO Headquarters in Brussels on March 24, 2022. Thomas COEX / AFP/Getty Images

In the meantime, NATO has had to proceed with caution even as it sends lethal aid to Ukraine. News emerged earlier this month of a proposed three-way fighter jet swap between Poland, the United States and Ukraine. The deal—which was scuttled by the Pentagon—would have involved the Polish Armed Forces surrendering their fleet of Soviet-era MiG 29s to the United States. The handoff would have obliged the U.S. to transfer the planes to Ukraine, thus indemnifying Poland from direct accountability. It also anticipated the U.S. would compensate for Warsaw's in-kind donation with the sale of American-made F-16s.

The legal authority for this sort of transfer was ambiguous and its strategic value unclear. Who would fly the jets? Does Ukraine have a stable of fighter pilots who are currently grounded? Given modifications and systems upgrades, can Ukrainian airmen fly the jets without additional training? How will Russia respond to such a transfer? Could that reaction expand the war?

The desire to aid Ukraine is both understandable and worthy. However, before the United States or its allies take additional steps, we must wrestle with potential negative and unintended consequences. Responsible moral examination should go further still.

Far too many observers, with far too little skin in the game, have taken morbid delight in stories about Ukrainian grandmothers, teenagers and other civilian populations exchanging blows with Russian forces. While we can appreciate the David-versus-Goliath narrative, there is an actual cost here: human lives. No sane observer would relish the death of non-combatants who are unlikely to make a material difference in the war.

This ghoulishness is, in part, driven by an uncritical acceptance of information coming from Ukrainian government and media sources. Ukraine's efforts to elicit sympathy and aid for their cause is easily defensible—all countries do this, and Ukraine certainly should. It holds the moral upper hand and plays to that strength by depicting Putin as the comic opera villain. But we must not accept what we hear credulously or simply repeat misinformation to American audiences—doing so abrogates the media's responsibility to independently verify claims, including and especially outrageous claims, and inflames rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic.

None of these responses are helpful to Ukraine. They encourage maximalist demands that obstruct the possibility of a negotiated settlement and risk dragging the United States and NATO into a protracted conventional war—or catastrophic nuclear conflict—with Russia. Furthermore, they macabrely cheerlead the deaths of thousands of Ukrainians rather than seek accommodation that ends the war with Russia. If President Zelensky and his war cabinet are willing to pursue such negotiations, far be it from any cosseted pundit to diminish their efforts as mere appeasement.

Constructive suggestions from Americans and NATO must take priority over incendiary takes that demonstrate great passion but little prudence.

Andrew Byers is president of Counter Extremism Network. Reid Smith is director of education outreach for foreign policy at Stand Together.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.