The Ever-Present Risks of Escalation

The possibility of the Russia-Ukraine War escalating into a larger conflict involving NATO member-states has been on the minds of politicians, diplomats, and general officers around the world since hostilities started in late February. For some nations, imposing economic sanctions on Russia and providing overt military support to Ukraine has forced them to walk a line that at times strays perilously close to promoting escalation. The prospect of provoking a wider conflict has forced the West to throttle back when it comes to undertaking some of the more perilous courses of action in response to Russia’s invasion.

This was clear in the first few days of fighting when the European Union moved to establish the groundwork for a plan allowing willing Eastern European nations to transfer their Soviet-era aircraft to Ukraine. Initially, there was a significant amount of enthusiasm for the proposal. As the days went on and the consequences this action could release was realized in capital cities across Eastern Europe, many governments quietly backed away from their pledges to send surplus MiGs and Sukhoi combat aircraft to Ukraine. Their concerns are justified. Sending warplanes is an overt act of support, quite different from the shipment of small arms, handheld SAMs and anti-tank guided missiles.  Poland is the only nation has stayed the course with Warsaw still actively searching for a way to ship its MiG-29s to Ukraine without being labeled as a co-combatant by Russia. The latest move, dependent upon US involvement was immediately turned down by Washington.

The prospect of a no-fly zone has also been surreptitiously sent to the grave.  A number of retired general officers and politicians in NATO nations have been vociferously calling for the introduction of a no-fly zone over Ukraine to prevent Russian airstrikes and missile attacks. The Ukrainian government has been the biggest proponent of a no-fly zone and its position is contrary to the Ukrainian Air Force’s claims of having shot down over fifty Russian combat aircraft and eighty helicopters. Air forces that inflict these types of losses do not need outside help. Therefore, it is increasingly certain that Ukraine has lost air superiority over the bulk of its territory. A no-fly zone involving air units from the United States and other NATO nations runs the risks of clashes with Russian aircraft. The consequences of this are apparent. NATO and Russia would find themselves engaging each other in combat and escalation would be imminent.

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