Where might Zelensky store his F-16s?

11 Jun

In the interests of brevity, clarity and simplicity there’s much I left out of my list yesterday of provocations that Guardian writer Patrick Wintour, in his hair-raising warmongering on June 8, chose to ignore.

I didn’t mention for instance that in the late spring of 2022, Kiev and Moscow were on the verge of signing a peace deal that would have done three things:

  • Eased Russian fears of a Ukraine on its border: within NATO and so capable of housing ICBMs capable of striking every major Russian city, including Moscow, in seconds.
  • Left Ukraine territorially intact, including – subject to honouring Minsk II and granting its peoples a meaningful say 1 – the Donbas.
  • Saved hundreds of thousands of lives, most of them Ukrainian.

Alarmed at so early an ending to its proxy war – calculated, ill-advisedly as is now abundantly clear, to weaken a Russian Federation no longer offering Boris Yeltsin’s compliance whatever the price – Washington dispatched a second Boris to torpedo the deal.

Also to keep things short, and in any case spoiled for choice, I did not refer either to Russia’s bid to join NATO, 2 not least because a Vladimir Putin still naive about Western intent 3 and mindful of the bloody Chechen Wars took at face value Washington statements that the alliance had been repurposed as a force against “global terror”.

Today Andrew Korybko offers another element. Whether and to what extent Washington’s perceived interests – over which the Beltway is divided – are diverging from Kiev’s is a moot point. (As is that of a similar divergence attributed to Washington’s perceived interests vis a vis  Tel Aviv’s.) But while America’s elite may be prepared to play nuclear chicken, Zelensky, with nothing left to lose, might go all the way. Over to Mr Korybko, and his brief piece of June 11.

Kiev’s Plan To Store F-16s In NATO States Raises The Risk Of World War III

It can’t be ruled out that Zelensky might task one of his pilots with carrying out a mission directly from NATO territory without first stopping at a Kiev-controlled airfield in order to provoke Russia into striking the base from which it departed in self-defense.

Ukrainian Air Force chief Sergey Golubtsov told US state-run Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in an interview over the weekend that Kiev plans to store some of its F-16s in NATO states for reserve and training purposes. While this might sound like a pragmatic policy, particularly since it would deter Russia from destroying its entire fleet since President Putin recently mocked speculation about him plotting to attack NATO as bullshit”, it actually raises the risk of World War III.

To explain, although US Air Force chief Frank Kendell claimed last summer that the F-16s are “not going to be a game-changer” for Ukraine and Golubtsov himself confirmed in his latest interview that they’re “not a panacea and we do not wear rose-colored glasses”, both downplay the nuclear dimension. President Putin brought it up earlier this spring when he noted that “F-16 aircraft can also carry nuclear weapons, and we will also have to heed this while organising our combat operations.”

The Russian leader also warned that “we would see them as legitimate targets if they operate from the airfields of third countries, no matter where they are located.” Mutual mistrust between Russia and the US is at a record low and continues falling by the week, made all the worse by Ukraine’s recent attack(s) against Russia’s early nuclear warning systems that might have been tacitly approved by America. This comes as the US is playing a dangerous game of nuclear chicken with Russia.

It’s with all this in mind that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last month that “We cannot help but consider the supply of these (F-16) systems to the Kiev regime as a deliberate signaling action by NATO in the nuclear sphere.” He added though that his country’s recent tactical nuclear weapons exercises might “bring some sense” to NATO and deter them from crossing the ultimate red line. Judging by what Golubtsov just said, however, the US wants to up the ante in its game of nuclear chicken.

What’s meant is that Russia can’t know whether any attacking F-16 are nuclear-equipped, especially if one of them from Ukraine’s “reserve” based in NATO states takes off from there and carries out a mission without first stopping at a Kiev-controlled airfield. From the Kremlin’s viewpoint, it could appear that a nuclear-equipped and NATO-piloted F-16 is preparing to carry out a first strike. In response, Russia might preemptively destroy the base from which it departed, with or without a tactical nuke.

The New York Times already cited an unknown number of Biden’s unnamed advisors to report that the US and Ukraine’s priorities are diverging, warning that “Ukraine has nothing left to lose from escalating with Russia” while “Mr. Biden does”. It therefore can’t be ruled out that Zelensky might task one of his pilots with carrying out a mission directly from NATO territory without first stopping at a Kiev-controlled airfield in order to provoke Russia into striking the base from which it departed in self-defense.

Seeing as how Denmark approved of Ukraine using their donated F-16s to strike inside of Russia’s universally recognized territory, which followed its NATO peers approving of Ukraine using other arms to do the same, this is a frighteningly real scenario that the US might be powerless to stop. The only way to prevent it is for the US to force its partners not to allow Ukraine to store its F-16s on their territory, but Biden likely doesn’t have the political will since he fears accusations that he’s afraid of President Putin.

The West’s most ideologically radicalized anti-Russian hawks and their media proxies could also claim that coercing Ukraine to store all of its F-16s inside the country runs the risk of Russia destroying them and therefore making a total waste of NATO’s months-long preparations for this latest escalation. This could be seized upon by his political opponents at home ahead of November’s elections so it’s unlikely that he’d want to take the chance of turning more voters against him with this so-called “stupid policy”.

Of course, the knife also cuts both ways, and his opponents could also claim that the most “stupid policy” is actually him letting Ukraine store F-16s in NATO states since that raises the risk of World War III as was explained in this analysis. Seeing as how these the US and Ukraine’s leading Air Force officials don’t even consider these arms to be a “game-changer” or a “panacea” by their own respective admissions, they shouldn’t even be fielded in the first place due to this irresponsible risk.

Nevertheless, the F-16s will now inevitably be used after all the time and investment that went into training Ukrainian pilots, not to mention the media hype over all these months. The decision has already been made to store some of them in NATO states so it remains to be seen whether Zelensky is truly willing to risk it all by authorizing a mission for attacking Russia directly from one of those bases. He has the motive and opportunity, which is why it wouldn’t be surprising if he gave it a shot in desperation.

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  1. Minsk enshrined a principle applicable also to South Ossetia. When a nation secedes from a larger one, as both Georgia and Ukraine had from Russia after the fall of the USSR, large ethnic groupings in clearly identifiable territories should be consulted on whether they choose to go with the secessionists, stay with their former state, or strike out alone. (Crimea, largely peopled by ethnic Russians and Turks (Tartars) and gifted to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev for reasons unclear, did not wait. In March 2014, just weeks after the Maidan coup of February, it voted overwhelmingly and on a massive turnout to rejoin Russia.)
  2. In his February 7 interview with Tucker Carlson, jeered at without exception by Western media which scrupulously avoided supplying a link to itGod forbid we might make our own minds up! – the RF President, soon to be re-elected by a huge majority on a turnout Western ‘democracies’ can only dream of, spoke of having privately sounded out Bill Clinton at a summit event on his country joining NATO. Clinton promised to look into it but returned that very day to say “his people” – a deep state which two decades later would sabotage Trump’s electoral promise to work with Russia – had vetoed the idea on the spot.
  3. Putin’s “naivety” as regards the West merits a dedicated post. For now and FWIW I will simply state my own belief that when James Baker, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl gave separate assurances to Mr Gorbachev that NATO would not advance east following German reunification, they were not lying. They genuinely thought, as did Mr Reagan, the cold war over. They too had an idealist grasp of history, one which precluded awareness of realities I set out in shorthand in a footnote to a June 3 post bearing the sardonic title, The military genius of The Economist:

    The old cold war was only superficially ideological. Russia’s vast natural wealth, markets closed off to Western capital, and above all 500 years of the West fearing a Pan Eurasian threat to its supremacy were – and remain – its key drivers. Putin’s error, failing for all his passion for history to grasp these realities, was to think the West would embrace a post Soviet but not subservient Russia. That’s a delusion he no longer labours under, as Russia turns decisively to the east – very much to the cost of Europe.

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