Biden gives Putin a win with his indefensible decision to deny Ukraine fighter jets

On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the war with Russia was at a “strategic turning point.” Unfortunately, America and NATO may have missed it. President Joe Biden’s decision to reject transferring Polish MiG fighter jets to Ukraine is inexplicable and indefensible.

Kyiv’s heroic resistance to unprovoked aggression has exceeded pre-war expectations, both NATO’s and Russia’s. Innumerable Russian mistakes and failures, from strategy down to basic logistics, have been equally startling. The Kremlin has not achieved key objectives, its advances have been slowed or halted, and its casualties are reportedly rising alarmingly.

But there is no guarantee that Ukraine can maintain the present standoff, let alone repel the invasion and restore the status quo ante bellum. It is not enough to say that Zelensky is losing slowly, especially if and when the moment for negotiations comes. Nor is it politically helpful for his purported allies to publicly refuse requests for help, like the MiGs or a no-fly zone over Ukraine, even a partial no-fly zone to stem the surging humanitarian tragedy of millions forced to flee their homes.

Biden’s White House has offered numerous rationales for rejecting the MiG transfer, so many that it suggests a desperate effort to hide the real reason: Biden is intimidated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Whereas Biden’s effort to deter Russia’s invasion failed, Putin’s efforts to deter the United States from responding adequately have unfortunately been all too successful.

Washington in fact actively considered the Polish MiG transfer and sent signals it was all but approved. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said so expressly. CBS anchor Margaret Brennan asked him March 6, “If, for instance, the Polish government. . . wants to send fighter jets, does that get a green light from the US, or are you afraid that that will escalate tension? ” Blinken replied, “No, that gets a green light. In fact, we’re talking with our Polish friends right now about what we might be able to do to backfill their needs if, in fact, they choose to provide these fighter jets to the Ukrainians. ”

Ukrainian Presidency, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses journalists on March 12, 2022.
Ukrainian Presidency, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses journalists on March 12, 2022.
HANDOUT / UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER / AFP via Getty Images
  Zelensky slams Russia deploying "mercenaries" he calls "murderers from Syria" to Ukraine.
Zelensky slams Russia deploying “mercenaries” he calls “murderers from Syria” to Ukraine.
HANDOUT / UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER / AFP via Getty Images

Washington in fact actively considered the Polish MiG transfer and sent signals it was all but approved. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said so expressly. CBS anchor Margaret Brennan asked him March 6, “If, for instance, the Polish government. . . wants to send fighter jets, does that get a green light from the US, or are you afraid that that will escalate tension? ” Blinken replied, “No, that gets a green light. In fact, we’re talking with our Polish friends right now about what we might be able to do to backfill their needs if, in fact, they choose to provide these fighter jets to the Ukrainians. ”

The administration and its media stenographers worked overtime to shift blame away from Biden, thereby revealing the weakness of the case against the MiG transfer. They said Poland could have made the transfer on its own. Of course, as a dependent ally, Poland wanted assurance that NATO’s leader – that would be the United States – supported the idea. Otherwise, Biden’s team would have complained Poland had gone rogue.

Next were arguments that Ukraine did not need the planes. The Pentagon said it was “simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it.” But Biden has long made it clear there would be no US combat role in the war. Why undermine the judgment of those actually engaged in combat, with the very survival of their country at stake, especially at no effective cost to Washington?

The US had turned down Poland's offer to supply 28 MiG-29 jets via transfer at Ramstein Air Base, despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleading with America and NATO.
The US had turned down Poland’s offer to supply 28 MiG-29 jets via transfer at Ramstein Air Base, despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleading with America and NATO.
AP Photo / Alik Keplicz, File
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his visit to Aeroflot aviation training complex outside Moscow on March 5, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his visit to Aeroflot aviation training complex outside Moscow on March 5, 2022.
MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP via Getty Images

Finally, the real argument: Biden feared he would cross a Putin red line, thereby risking all-out war in Europe. We risk that war already, however, by supplying anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems, intelligence and cyberwarfare capabilities. All this aid has to cross NATO borders to get to Ukraine, just like the MiGs. Anything other than Ukraine’s unconditional surrender risks displeasing the Kremlin. There is no legal, moral or military rationale that supports disapproving the MiGs but allows other advanced-weapons assistance, only fear and sophistry.

Indeed, the administration is also leaking assiduously that it is considering alternative forms of aid. Undoubtedly, steady increases in rhetorical bombardments, permanent deployment of Vice President Kamala Harris to Europe to boost our allies’ confidence, ramped up White House and Pentagon press briefings and longer telephone calls from Biden to Zelensky are all under active consideration.

We can not precisely measure the intangible effects on morale, both in Kyiv and Moscow, or Biden’s rejection of the MiG transfer. It would be stunning, however, if Zelensky’s advisers and Ukraine’s military were not dismayed and Putin’s elated. Whatever the precise operational value of the Polish MiGs, such a tangible sign of American and NATO support could have been inspiring. With both the MiGs and no-fly zones off the table, Ukraine’s options are narrowing.

The White House has offered several excuses as to why they denied the Ukrainian's request.
The White House has offered several excuses as to why they denied the Ukrainian’s request.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Pentagon officials rightly remember Clausewitz’s insight: “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Biden took a simple idea, made it difficult and then rejected it. Congratulations.

John Bolton was national security adviser to President Donald Trump from 2018 to 2019 and US ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006.

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