Talking Points

Poland MiG-29 deal flew to the brink of a disastrous war

There's a good reason U.S. officials on Monday quickly put the kibosh on Poland's plan to transfer its fighter jets to Ukrainians directly from a U.S. base in Germany — the proposal stood a good chance of drawing the United States and NATO directly into the fight with Russian and starting World War III. 

"We do not believe Poland's proposal is a tenable one," a Defense Department spokesman said, just hours after the effort became public.

As long as Ukraine is able to stay in the fight against Russia, we're going to see plenty more debates and incidents like this. There's a real tension between helping Ukraine without helping it so much that the violence spills out across Europe. I've said it before: Prudence is hard. Escalation is easy. 

Maybe too easy.

The Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank, has just published a survey of 37 experts — former diplomats and retired military officers — asking them to rank a baker's dozen of possible American interventions, evaluating options according to both their possible effectiveness and the potential risk they might escalate the conflict into a wider war between NATO and Russia. The menu included everything from humanitarian assistance to using special operations forces to "advise" Ukrainians to the establishment of the much-discussed no-fly zone. 

Almost all of the options were considered at least somewhat risky by the experts. Just two proposals were ranked firmly on the "lower risk" side of the quadrant: Giving Ukrainians either unmanned drones or electronic warfare systems that can jam enemy communications and weapons while defending against such attacks. Even a proposed airlift of humanitarian supplies into the city of Lviv ranked on the riskier side of the spectrum.

"Any actions that involved U.S. or NATO personnel deploying to conduct operations inside Ukraine, even humanitarian operations, were rated as relatively more escalatory than militarily effective, with the riskiest being SOF [special operations forces] operations," the report's authors wrote. "The no-fly zone option was clearly identified as the one most likely to lead to NATO-Russia conflict — with all respondents saying it would entail a significant risk of escalation."

The experts were more bullish on providing weapons systems to Ukrainians to operate on their own. As it happens, that balance — give weapons, but don't get NATO personnel or facilities directly involved — is pretty much exactly what the U.S. and its allies are already doing. Even then, such actions are fraught.

By now, everybody should understand why a fight between the U.S. and Russia is a bad idea: You don't want two nuclear powers trading blows, at all. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be helping the Ukrainians. But it does mean that every judgment, every decision, is extremely delicate. This is not a moment for glib, cavalier decisions. The future of the whole world is at stake.