Kyiv-based Paul Niland considers the options available to help Ukraine put an end to Vladimir Putin’s military machine once and for all

Vladimir Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine is now on Day 12, as we call it. It happens to be a Monday, but this day is like any other during war time. It is a daily series of choices. Leave or go? Head to the bomb shelter or not? Life is seeing what kind of food may or may not be available, and making do with what one can find.

While fighting rages on the outskirts of Kyiv, and I write to the background noises of artillery booms, the assaults that are simultaneously underway on places like Mariupol are horrific in nature.

Mariupol is an industrial and port city in the southern corner of the Donetsk region, which was briefly occupied in the early days of the war in 2014. Now the Russians intend to take it back, despite the wishes of the people living there.

Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million in Ukraine’s east, has also been treated with brutality bordering on contempt, for refusing to capitulate.

In the occupied cities of Kherson and Melitopol, in Ukraine’s south, there have been rallies of peaceful citizens showing the rejection of their occupied temporary status. Unarmed citizens there have taken to the central squares to wave the blue and yellow flag of the state they rightfully demand to remain a part of.

The city of Odesa, dominated by Russian speakers, is braced for an offensive from the sea and by air.

The Russian President’s insane invasion of Ukraine has brought carnage across the largest country in Europe – and he is not finished. Despite the immense loss of life of Russian soldiers, attacks on cities that will never be occupied continue and the resulting death toll of Ukraine’s civilians is another thing that Putin does not care about.

Ukraine’s land forces have put up a heroic fight, as they did against the invading Russian forces in the Donbas in 2014. They have fought the enemy to standstills in some places and forced the Russians to retreat in others. As Putin’s land forces lie in ruins or in body bags – but with little else to press him to stop his brutal assault – Ukraine must now deliver from the air the knockout blow to end the war crimes under way in Ukraine as fast as is humanly possible (the International Criminal Court is already opening an investigation into said crimes and, without prejudging the outcome of that process, they are already very evident).

One of the most contentious debates swirling around Ukraine in recent days is how to provide the air support that is needed to put an end to Putin’s military machine once and for all.

There are three potential ways to do this, each with their different complications. But solutions are also at hand.


NATO

Throughout this war, and during the build up to it, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg repeatedly stated (as did US President Joe Biden) that there would be no NATO (or American) boots on the ground in Ukraine.

While those statements make sense on some levels, communicating to Vladimir Putin what would not be done to support Ukraine only emboldened him.

The impression that he was left with was that he would have little resistance to his invasion, only the Ukrainian military that he so disastrously under-estimated the strength and resolve of.

Stoltenberg has recently said that NATO would not supply the necessary air assets to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, even though precedents for NATO to do this exist.

The logic is that an incident between a Russian fighter jet and one flying under the NATO banner would lead to World War Three.

Nobody wants such a thing, of course – despite the fact that Ukraine has exposed how inherently weak the Russian military really is. Red lines have been drawn (or rather, not drawn) and so we must move on to other solutions.

This is not an academic debate – lives are at stake.


A Volunteer Air Force

When we here in Ukraine saw the necessity to challenge Russia’s superior air power over our skies, the idea of a volunteer air force was raised. This is a complex undertaking, which primarily requires experienced pilots, aircraft they are used to flying, armaments, and ground crews.

To research this idea, I contacted a recently retired fighter pilot to understand both the manpower and other moving parts of the equation. 

In countries neighbouring Ukraine – Romania and Croatia – there stands a combat ready fleet of MiG-29, MiG-21, Sukhoi 22 and Sukhoi 25 aircraft. Approximately 70 of them in total.

Ukrainian pilots and ground crews are experienced operators of these particular planes, and so too are many experienced fighter pilots from around the region who may want to sign up to volunteer to fly these jets against the Russian invasion forces and to use them to – among other things – erase the Russian artillery positions from a ‘safe’ distance of those pounding the homes of Ukrainian citizens.

Here’s an appeal to pilots from around the world, if you can help, add your name to this list

I am reliably informed that, in addition to pilots already being ready to add their names to this list, ground crews stand ready to assist. The website will be expanded to register that support in due course.

As for the hardware, it belongs to someone. It is there. It needs to be released for Ukraine’s benefit and there are any number of mechanisms to make that possible. The nature of any transaction is between the contracting parties. These aircraft could be sold to Ukraine for a nominal sum, or released under a lend/lease arrangement. They would be returned after the victory and given pride of place in your aviation museums. 

This can happen, very quickly – and the faster it happens, the faster the horrors of citizens under bombardment will be curtailed and then ended.

There is already a formal Foreign Legion of citizens of other countries coming to Ukraine to join the ground war – 20,000 people in total. There is no reason we cannot do the same to build an air defence capability too.


A coalition of Nations

An argument has been put forward by a former Resident Coordinator of the United Nations to Ukraine, Ambassador Francis M O’Donnell, that an international coalition of air support for Ukraine could be brought together – comprised of the air forces of any nation (regardless of, and independently from any other alliances) wishing to contribute.

O’Donnell lays out a framework in which the United Nations General Assembly could mandate such a coalition to act based on the ‘Responsibility To Protect’ principle. This argument is sound, but waiting for a UN General Assembly mandate is even unnecessary, because a precedent exists for unilateral air force activity in another country – and that precedent is set by none other than Vladimir Putin.

When Putin sent his air power to support Syrian dictator Bassar al-Assad, a mission on which the Russian air force committed war crimes such as bombing humanitarian aid convoys, his only justification was the following: ‘we are here at the invitation of the legitimate government’.

Russia believes that, in and of itself, this is all that is needed for the air force of one country to go to the aid of another country. Therefore, Putin cannot complain about this. He will, of course, so what?

As well as Putin himself providing the precedent, other examples in history tell us that such an action is legitimate. Sweden, for example, came to the help of Finland in 1939. There are indications that Poland may be the first country ready to join such a collation. Others should follow its lead.

Countries joining this coalition would send a combination of important messages: that Russia’s aggression will not be tolerated; that Putin’s slaughter of innocents is a war crime the international community will end; and that the Government of Ukraine is recognised, in the face of Russia propaganda lies claiming that it consists of radical nationalists and Nazis.

The only thing that Putin respects is force. The only thing that is needed to immediately begin the protection of Ukrainian citizens from the skies is an invitation from the legitimate government. It is a standing invitation.

When Putin used his ‘we are here at the invitation of the legitimate government’ argument to justify his entry into Syria’s civil war, it was a prelude to him committing war crimes in concert with Assad. If countries join an international air defence coalition ‘at the request of the legitimate government’ of Ukraine, it will be to protect against and stop war crimes.

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