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Ukrainian troops. Source: Ukraine Defense Ministry. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en).

A NATO No-Combat Zone In Ukraine?

NATO should occupy western Ukraine and establish a no-combat zone. NATO should take action despite Putin’s nuclear threats, and act immediately because the window of opportunity is closing.

In order not to provoke Vladimir Putin into direct conflict with NATO/U.S. forces, it would have to be a two-sided no-combat zone, off limits to both Ukrainian and Russian aircraft and ground troops and the transit of arms supplies to Ukrainians fighting in the east. It could not be a protected zone from which Ukrainian troops could launch attacks on Russians to the east.

The effective surrender of eastern Ukraine would be a bitter pill for President Zelenskyy. Yet in the absence of any NATO action, the crisis is likely to end with total defeat for Ukraine (and the U.S., NATO and the West).

Adoption of this mission would require a major policy change in the West. Intimidated by Putin’s nuclear threats, President Biden has nixed even the relatively minor proposals of a no-fly-zone and the supply of NATO MIGs to Ukraine.

While Zelenskyy has requested a no-fly zone, his request glosses over key concerns and ignores others.

First, a no-fly zone would have to be two-sided, just as the proposed no-combat zone, in order not to provoke Putin.

Second and more important, it ignores the bigger Russian threat of massive long-range missile and artillery bombardment. A no-fly zone wouldn’t stop that. A no-fly zone would be just what it sounds like, applicable to manned flight only. As such, it would facilitate Russian ground attacks by preventing Ukrainian jets from attacking Russian artillery and missile launchers moving on the ground into western Ukraine.

A NATO occupation in the west would have the advantage of the initiative. NATO would warn Putin that any Russian attack on NATO forces would be met by an equivalent attack on Russian forces. Putin would be thrust into a reactive posture.

With no significant Russian operations on the ground or in the air in western Ukraine, Putin would face a tough choice. His operations in eastern Ukraine have been unimpressive, with courageous Ukrainians successfully holding off Russian forces in many places.

Would Putin want to spread his forces thin by moving troops and armaments to the west to counter NATO’s move? Professional military minds should answer that question, but, from a layman’s perspective, it would seem doubtful that Putin would move west in any meaningful manner.

A NATO occupation of western Ukraine would have to be an all-in commitment and one launched immediately. While Putin would be unlikely to violate the no-combat zone with airplanes or troops, he might launch long-range missile attacks and artillery bombardment.

NATO would have to commit similar armaments to be able to launch the threatened equivalent counterattacks. Also, NATO would have to commit anti-missile missiles, such as Patriots, to protect against long-range missile attacks.

The opportunity for action is closing, with Russia having launched isolated missile attacks on targets in the west within the last couple of days. Moreover, eventually, the Russians will have conquered the east and will be able to turn attention to the west.

Western action to date has been insufficient. It is destined ultimately to fail.

While the U.S. and NATO have finally rushed military assistance to Ukraine, it is mostly in the form of hand-held anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles that are highly effective at short range. Putin has countered already, as was to be expected, by shifting to long-range artillery bombardment and missile attacks. NATO cannot meet Putin’s countermove, as it would involve virtually impossible logistics necessary to move heavy artillery to eastern Ukraine where all the fighting is now.

The proposed mission is a triage proposal, salvaging the west and effectively surrendering the east. Triage is not necessarily inconsistent with prior policy, since it emerges as the relative odds of survival evolve. In this case, it would also recognize a long-term reality in the natural division between a western Ukrainian-speaking region and an eastern Russian-speaking region.

NATO and the U.S. would face a momentous decision. Only two considerations matter: (1) the relative odds of success in protecting the whole of Ukraine versus just western Ukraine, and (2) the relative nuclear risk entailed. 

Ukraine has little chance of defending its entire territory. Salvaging the west is better than total defeat.

The nuclear risks involved are essentially a matter of present risk versus future risk. As things stand, the refusal of Biden to assume any nuclear risk whatsoever signals to Putin – and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping – that nuclear saber rattling succeeds, almost ensuring that Putin and Xi will employ nuclear brinksmanship in the future.

On the other hand, the proposed NATO occupation of western Ukraine involves increased risk of a nuclear confrontation now, even if moderating it later.

Yet, the risk today is measurable and, arguably, moderate. Ironically, it is in Putin’s interest to concede to a partition of Ukraine. Without a negotiated settlement with NATO and the West, Putin faces twin costs of gigantic dimensions. He will be subject to the Pottery Barn rule in Ukraine: you broke it, you fix it – at enormous cost. In his own country, he faces ongoing crippling economic sanctions that, if unrelieved, are likely to decimate the Russian economy for years to come.

Whatever Putin might gain by prevailing in the entirety of Ukraine, he would give up economically – and, in addition, by becoming beholden to XI Jinping for Chinese assistance in mitigating that economic damage.

Without some effort and success in pushing back against Putin, President Biden’s commitment to “defend every inch of NATO territory” rings hollow. Failure to act now demonstrates a lack of will and nerve that only invites future challenges.

Haven’t we learned that failure to stand up to totalitarian dictators only encourages them? In the end, what does America stand for, if not for the defense of freedom?

Red Jahncke is president of The Townsend Group International, a business consulting firm in Connecticut.

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