An Airlift Could Save Ukraine

The Wall Street Journal by John Hannah and Douglas Feith 

Russian forces are encircling Kyiv, and U.S. intelligence says the Ukrainian capital could run out of food and water in days. Having refused to establish a no-fly zone, President Biden needs more options to deal with enormous and urgent humanitarian needs. We propose an international airlift, organized and supported by the U.S.

The goal would be to provide food, medicine and other nonmilitary supplies for days, weeks and maybe longer. Countries viewed as not hostile to Russia—perhaps Brazil, Egypt, India and the United Arab Emirates—could take the lead in flying planes into Ukraine.

Such an effort would put international pressure on Russia, which claims (however disingenuously) to support humanitarian land corridors for Ukrainian refugees. Vladimir Putin would either consent and facilitate distribution of supplies or provoke more denunciations of Russia for its inhumanity. Even if criticism doesn’t move him, his top lieutenants may worry about their image and their vulnerability to war-crimes trials. This proposal may aggravate whatever divisions exist within Mr. Putin’s team and trigger further antiwar sentiment among ordinary Russians.

At the same time, an airlift would counter Russia’s strategy to besiege the Ukrainian people, boost Ukrainian morale, and increase international efforts to aid Ukraine. Countries around the world can contribute humanitarian supplies. This would give them more to do to help Ukraine than simply vote for United Nations resolutions.

The U.S. and Europe could provide the logistical infrastructure to gather global donations. Efforts should be made to get the U.N. secretary-general to endorse the airlift, along with the Vatican and recognized leaders of the world’s Jewish, Muslim and Orthodox Christian communities. An interfaith delegation could be on the first plane into Ukraine.

A humanitarian airlift would be an acceptable alternative to a no-fly zone. A no-fly zone would create huge risks of escalation and has been widely rejected by U.S. and European leaders. An airlift has much better chances of receiving bipartisan support and broad international backing. Instead of threatening to shoot down Russian planes, a humanitarian airlift would force Russia either to consent or threaten to shoot down planes from nonthreatening countries full of humanitarian goods.

There are many obstacles to implementing this proposal, but little to no downside in a U.S. effort to promote it. This proposal doesn’t preclude efforts to arm the Ukrainians better, or eventually to establish a no-fly zone, but because the airlift is far less risky it should be more readily doable.

It is damaging to allow Russia to bar the world from doing anything inside Ukraine no matter how outrageously Russian forces act. This proposal would show the world’s will and intention to act inside Ukraine, but not (yet) do something as dangerous as establish a no-fly zone.

Arguments for doing this could apply also to humanitarian supplies brought in by truck convoys, but an airlift suggests a greater sense of urgency. The cost of the effort would be low, the risks acceptable, the payoffs substantial. The idea deserves urgent U.S. leadership.

Mr. Feith is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Mr. Hannah is a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. Both served as national-security officials in the George W. Bush administration.

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal.