putin’s wish

What putin wants

A NATO imposed no-fly zone over Ukraine is what putin needs to shore up his regime’s legitimacy inside russia. As it is now the future of the putin regime looks dire, due to massive russian losses in Ukraine and due to the imminent collapse of the russian economy. He needs a new narrative to save his regime, and a NATO imposed no-fly zone is his last, best hope.

Currently the russian army fights only Ukrainians and even the most fanatic putin regime loyalist knows that Ukraine is not an existential threat to the russian nation. Therefore putin’s propaganda lies about Ukraine developing “nuclear weapons”, NATO basing missiles in Ukraine, Ukrainians being “nazis”, etc. to conjure an existential threat to the russian nation.

Unsurprisingly not one of these silly lies struck a nerve with the russian people, so putin is now in need of a new narrative to shore up his support inside russia before the economy implodes. However, the kremlin cannot back up any new narrative with video and image material, so he is stuck. This is where a NATO no-fly zone would bail him out. A NATO no-fly zone would provide the putin regime with the narrative and the images it needs to rally the russian people behind it, as a confrontation with NATO is an existential threat to the russian nation.

Furthermore putin and his generals are reluctant to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine, a non-nuclear nation; not because putin and his generals have moral inhibitions, but because even putin knows such a first use of nuclear weapons would see even the last remaining neutral or ambiguous countries switch into the anti-russia camp, turning russia into a pariah for decades to come.

However in a confrontation with NATO, a nuclear alliance, putin would claim self-defense and have no qualms about using tactical nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear NATO member. In fact russia’s military doctrine calls for the early use of tactical nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear NATO member to scare the nuclear-weapons possessing NATO members into retreating from a direct confrontation with russia and possible nuclear Armageddon.

In short a NATO imposed no-fly zone would re-legitimize the putin regime and putin’s war inside russia, it would rally the russian people behind putin, and it would give putin an opening to “escalate to de-escalate”, which is what the russian military calls the nuking of a non-nuclear nation. putin is currently increasing the destruction of Ukrainian cities and the civilian suffering to goad NATO into action, but we must not fall into his trap. NATO’s decision to refuse to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine is the correct decision.

A no-fly zone is actually a full-scale air war. To establish a no-fly zone against a defiant adversary allied aircraft need to not just chase off or shoot down enemy planes violating the no-fly zone, allied aircraft also need to identify and destroy enemy ground based air defense systems like radar sites, missile sites, command and control sites, etc. In the case of Ukraine this would mean to strike russian air defense positions in Ukraine and in russia. Do you understand now, why putin prays for NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine? Do you understand now that no one benefits more from a no-fly zone than putin?

The proponents of a no-fly zone over Ukraine claim they demand it for purely humanitarian reasons, when in fact they wish for NATO to enter the war on Ukraine’s side. They saw NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, for which Obama’s PR team used the euphemism “no-fly zone”, and now want the same type of intervention in Ukraine. In Libya NATO special forces and warplanes obliterated Gaddafi’s ground forces and thus paved the road for regime change, but in the case of russia a NATO no-fly zone would do the opposite — namely shore up the regime we want to topple.

NATO’s “no fly zone” in Libya included 1000s of air strikes against regime forces. (Source: wikipedia)

What Ukraine needs

And there is actually no need for a NATO imposed no-fly zone. Just yesterday on 5 March russia lost 9 helicopters and fighters to Ukrainian ground base air-defense units, including the two most modern types in the russian arsenal: one Su-30SM fighter and two Su-34 fighter-bombers; the equivalent of the US losing one F-22 and two F-35A in a day to cheap man-portable air-defense systems like the Stinger. As russia is using no more than approximately 75–80 aircraft per day inside Ukraine, a loss of 10% or more of employed air assets is an attrition level the russian air force can’t sustain.

Visually confirmed russian helicopter and fighter loses on 5 March.

The reason even the best russian fighters jets are easy prey for Ukrainian man-portable air-defense system teams is that the putin regime bought a lot of shiny fighters and just a minimal amount of precision guided ammunition. In NATO air campaigns the percentage of precision guided ammunition is 100%, which allows NATO fighter aircraft to cruise 8–10 km above ground and still strike single tanks or artillery systems with pin-point accuracy. russia has already run out of precision guided ammunition and with sanctions blocking the supply of chips and sensors russia can’t replenish its stocks. No precision guided ammo means russia has to resort to dropping dumb bombs — metal boxes filled with explosives, whose impact point depends on the speed, trajectory and height of the airplane at the moment of release. A Su-34 releasing such a bomb at 8 km of altitude (= out of range of Stinger missiles) would see these bombs miss their intended target by a mile. To rectify this russian pilots have to fly as low and slow as possible, making putin’s shiny fighters nothing but lumbering metal blocks that a Stinger missile cannot miss.

A Stinger blowing a russian helicopter out of Ukraine’s sky.

All NATO has to do is to flood Ukraine with Stingers, especially the newest FIM-92J variant, and Ukrainians will shoot down russian planes by the dozens. Even Ukrainian president Zelensky knows there is no need for a NATO imposed no-fly zone and uses it as an opening offer in his negotiations with Western counterparts. Every time Zelensky demands a no-fly zone he follows it up with what he really needs: more fighters and ground attack aircraft to allow Ukraine’s Air Force to strike russian convoys and supply depots behind the front. Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia have such aircraft and the ability to donate them, but the delivery of these to Ukraine was scuppered by the EU’s Foreign Affairs High Representative Borrell announcing it publicly. The intention was to deliver these Mig-29 and Su-25 fighters covertly, giving the three aforementioned countries deniability.

Bulgarian Mig-29 (Source: wikipedia)

As that plan has been sunk another way to still deliver these aircraft to Ukraine would be for the U.S. to buy them and then donate them to Ukraine, thus giving the three non-nuclear European countries again the cover and deniability they request. Currently the United States is working on a deal with Poland to send F-16s to replace the planes Poland would donate to Ukraine.

Additionally the U.S. should acquire the following air defense systems from allied nations and transfer them to Ukraine asap as Ukraine operates these systems and could start to use them immediately:

  • Buk from Cyprus, Egypt, Finland
  • Osa from Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Jordan, Poland, Romania
  • Tor from Cyprus, Egypt, Greece
  • S-300 from Bulgaria, Greece, Slovakia

Providing some of the above listed surface-to-air missile systems, 1,000s of Stinger missiles, and 30–40 Mig-29 fighters will suffice to tilt the air war in favor of Ukraine, without giving putin his desired confrontation with NATO. And while establishing a no-fly zone is an act of war, transferring military equipment is common and has never been considered an act of war in history or law; which is well evidenced by russia’s non-stop transfer of military equipment to Syria to aid in the genocide of Syria’s people.

A Finnish Buk air defense system (Source: wikipedia)

And to tilt the ground war in favor of Ukraine the US, with a lend and lease program, and Germany, with its €100 billion special defense investment fund, should buy and transfer the 1000s of Soviet-made main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery systems, multiple rocket launchers, etc., which the following NATO and EU countries posses: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Deliver these and another 10,000 anti-tank missiles to Ukraine and the balance of power on the ground shifts decisively in Ukraine’s favor.

Delivering these air and ground capabilities to Ukraine will attrition the russian military forces in Ukraine into collapse, which will lead to regime change in russia, which is now our main objective. Therefore we must not gift putin a direct confrontation with NATO; yet we must give Ukrainians all the weapons and tools for them to annihilate the russian forces inside Ukraine.

About the author:

Theiner is a former member of the Italian Army, who has lived and worked in Kyiv since 2009. Theiner is an expert on NATO Cold War land forces and NATO Cold War defense strategy. A contributor of Euromaidan Press during Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution and the following Donbas war Theiner currently resides in Austria and works on Cold War documentaries. Theiner has been analyzing and reporting on open source intelligence and conflicts in the former Soviet Union since the Russian takeover of Crimea. You can follow him on Twitter, where he continuously posts Ukraine war updates.

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