In his stirring plea to Congress Wednesday morning, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine highlighted just a handful of things he wants from the West as his country mounts its desperate defense against the Russian invaders: tighter economic sanctions on Moscow, more sophisticated air defense systems, and fighter jets.
The air defense systems and sanctions seem likely to come, but the United States is blocking the transfer of jets. That’s a mistake. With Russia unleashing a punishing bombing campaign from above, Ukraine needs every opportunity to protect its people below.
The most-discussed plan involves shipping Polish MIGs to Ukraine, and then replenishing Poland’s fleet with American-made fighter jets. Just a week-and-a-half ago, in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was giving the “green light” to the idea.
But within days, the administration had backtracked, arguing that the transfer could cross a line with Russian President Vladimir Putin and spark a broader conflict with the West.
It’s not a very convincing argument.
The United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have already supplied the Ukrainian military with an enormously lethal arsenal of Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger antiaircraft missiles. They’ve sent helicopters, patrol boats, and other vehicles. And on Wednesday, after Zelensky’s speech, President Biden announced that drones and a new cache of machine guns and grenade launchers are on the way.
Every intervention brings sharp condemnation from Moscow; a Kremlin spokesman recently called the sanctions levied on Russia an “economic war.” But Putin has shown no interest in a wider war. Indeed, with his economy in shambles and his military engaged in an unexpectedly difficult fight with the Ukrainians, a full-on clash with NATO is all but unthinkable at this stage.
If the risk of transferring the MIGs is low, the need is great. Russia’s control of the skies has visited a humanitarian catastrophe on Ukraine. Maternity hospitals are in rubble and bodies litter the streets. Last week, Mayor Vadym Boichenko of Mariupol described the siege of his city as “Armageddon” and “two days of hell,” with Russian planes flying over residential neighborhoods every 30 minutes, “killing civilians: old people, women, children.”
The best answer would be a NATO-imposed no-fly zone. But here, the West is right to be leery — direct combat between NATO and Russian pilots would be dangerous.
But absent that kind of cover, the United States and its allies are obligated to give Ukraine a chance to contest its own skies.
The Biden administration has argued that supplying Ukraine with more fighter jets wouldn’t have much effect; the country is flying a limited number of sorties with the planes it already has, officials say, and other kinds of weaponry are more important to the overall war effort.
But that rings hollow given that the White House supported the transfer of the MIGs just days ago — and that the Ukrainian president, who presumably knows his country’s defense needs best, is pleading for jet fighters again and again.
Besides, this shouldn’t be a matter of providing one class of weapon or another. NATO nations are perfectly capable of delivering both the jets and the air defense systems Ukraine is requesting. And they should.
One other concern skeptics have raised is over how the planes would get to Ukraine. Poland worries that a direct transfer could invite a military response from Russia. So it has suggested that the United States serve as middleman, hosting the MIGs at an American base in Germany before they’re flown to Ukraine. Administration officials don’t like the idea of NATO pilots flying the jets into Ukraine and coming under fire from the Russians. But there is a way around this problem: Ukrainian pilots could do the flying.
Getting jets to Ukraine is not a risk-free proposition. But it’s a low-risk proposition. And the moment demands action.
“To be the leader of the world,” Zelensky said, toward the end of his speech, “is to be the leader of peace.”
On the whole, America has done a fine job of rallying the West to Ukraine’s defense. But here it can do more.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.