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.
-Media outlets in the West have begrudgingly come around to the reality that Russian forces are making deep advances into Ukrainian territory. For days now, the focus of outside media attention has been on the fighting around Kiev and other major Ukrainian cities. As I’ve talked about before though, there has been less attention to the maneuvering and battles going on outside of cities like Kherson and Nikolayev until very recently. It is becoming more of a task for Ukrainian government officials to mask the advances Russian forces are making now. And they are advancing deeper into Ukraine in spite of the significant problems dogging many of the Russian ground units.
In the east, the taking of Zaporizhzhya raised concerns about Ukrainian forces in the east being cut off if Russian forces now arrayed around Kharkov could kickstart their advance southwest. As of now, this does not appear likely, meaning a large number of Ukrainian units will hopefully manage to withdraw before they are pocketed.
-This afternoon and evening, a number of retired US military officers have come out in opposition to NATO’s reluctance to implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Former SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) General Philip Breedlove, USAF led the charge. Breedlove suggested a humanitarian no-fly zone be established to help make certain food and other necessary supplies can be delivered to Ukrainian citizens fleeing to western areas of the country. In comments made to Fox News, he explained, “It would be something where we would transmit to our opponent what we are doing in order to stay out of a more bellicose posture. But it would be really up to the opponent how it would proceed if we went in there and tried to have a no-fly zone over the western half of Ukraine.” With the number of Ukrainian refugees rapidly topping 1.2 million, there are calls to provide more assistance even in the face of growing Russian aggression.
Even before the ceasefire in Syria collapsed, Russia was already making preparations to reinforce its military contingent in Syria. Since the ceasefire’s premature end and the withdrawal of the US from bilateral talks on the Syrian conflict, Moscow has cast subtlety aside and is moving forward in Syria with little regard for the objections of the US government. Public and social media statements by members of the Russian government this week resembled taunts and with the general state of US-Russian relations rapidly deteriorating, it probably will not improve anytime in the near future.
Russia is moving additional forces and supplies to Syria. Additional Russian Navy warships have been seen transiting the Bosphorus on their way to the East Med, and another advanced SAM system is on its way to Syria. This one is the SA-23 Gladiator/Giant, known as the S-300VM in Russian military circles. It is an updated version of the SA-21 Growler (S-400) system that arrived in Syria last year. The Gladiator was designed to defend against and defeat theater ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and is also very effective against precision-guided munitions and perhaps even standoff jammers such as the US Navy’s EA-18 Growler.
On the surface it might seem the movement of additional advanced SAMs into Syria is textbook example of sabre rattling. That might be Moscow’s intent. However, the operational implications cannot be overlooked or ignored. With the incoming SA-23s, and the SA-21s and fighters already in place, Russia has the foundation for a very effective no-fly zone at its fingertips. At any given moment, Russia can choose to close off the skies of Syria to all aircraft except for its own and those of its Syrian allies. Such a no-fly zone would be invaluable in the event of a Syrian offensive against rebel groups around Aleppo or other parts of the nation. The US had made noise about targeting Syrian government forces and airbases with airstrikes to help alleviate the crisis in Aleppo. The presence of a potential Russian-enforced no-fly zone essentially kills the possibility of US/coalition airstrikes against government targets.
In a nutshell, what Russia is doing right now is locking down Syria tight. Moscow has gained control of the geopolitical and military situation in the country. Washington’s position in Syria has been largely minimized, due in large part to the mismanagement of the administration and the naïve, pie-in-the-sky expectations that Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama adopted when Russia intervened in the conflict last year. Back in September of 2015 it was obvious that Russia was not interested in a partnership with the US either to stabilize Syria and/or combat ISIS. Putin sent Russian forces to Syria to ensure the survival and eventual victory of Bashir al-Assad’s regime. Yet Obama and Kerry still went forward in the belief that Syria could be stabilized through US-Russian cooperation. The chances of that happening have evaporated, leaving Washington with two choices: do nothing further or respond to the Aleppo situation with airstrikes and run the risk of escalation and a wider conflict with Russia.