Russian forces are surrounding kyiv and US intelligence says the Ukrainian capital could run out of food and water within days. Having refused to establish a no-fly zone, President Biden needs more options to address the huge and urgent humanitarian needs. We offer an international airlift, organized and supported by the USA
The goal would be to provide food, medicine, and other non-military supplies for days, weeks, and possibly longer. Countries considered not hostile to Russia – possibly Brazil, Egypt, India and the United Arab Emirates – could take the initiative to fly planes to Ukraine.
Such an effort would put international pressure on Russia, which claims (albeit dishonestly) to support humanitarian land corridors for Ukrainian refugees. Vladimir Putin would consent and facilitate the distribution of supplies or provoke more denunciations of Russia for its inhumanity. Even if the critics do not move him, his top lieutenants may worry about their image and their vulnerability to war crimes trials. This proposal may deepen the divisions that exist within Mr. Putin’s team and spark additional anti-war sentiment among ordinary Russians.
At the same time, an airlift would run counter to the Russian strategy to besiege the Ukrainian people, boost Ukrainian morale and increase international efforts to help Ukraine. Countries around the world can contribute humanitarian supplies. That would give them more to do to help Ukraine than just vote for UN resolutions.
The United States and Europe could provide the logistical infrastructure to collect global donations. Efforts must be made to get the UN Secretary General to endorse the airlift, as well as the Vatican and recognized leaders of the world’s Jewish, Muslim and Orthodox Christian communities. An interfaith delegation could be on the first plane to Ukraine.
A humanitarian air bridge would be an acceptable alternative to a no-fly zone. A no-fly zone would create huge escalation risks and has been widely rejected by US and European leaders. An airlift has a much better chance of receiving bipartisan support and broad international support. Instead of threatening to shoot down Russian planes, a humanitarian airlift would force Russia to acquiesce or threaten to shoot down planes from non-threatening countries loaded with humanitarian goods.
There are many obstacles to implementing this proposal, but little or no downside in a US effort to promote it. This proposal does not preclude efforts to better arm the Ukrainians, or possibly to establish a no-fly zone, but because the airlift is much less risky, it should be more easily achievable.
It is damaging to allow Russia to stop the world from doing anything inside Ukraine, no matter how outraged Russian forces are. This proposal would show the will and the intention of the world to act inside Ukraine, but not (yet) to do something as dangerous as establishing a no-fly zone.
The arguments for this could also apply 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 gains substantial. The idea deserves urgent American leadership.
Dr. Feith is a Principal Investigator 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.
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Appeared in the March 15, 2022 print edition.