Imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine could be necessary as the West faces the choice of fighting President Putin either now or later, a former senior British military chief has said.
General Sir Chris Deverell, who was in charge of military intelligence, cyber and special forces as commander of the Joint Forces Command until 2019 when he retired from the army, suggested that he had shifted his thinking on whether Nato should close the skies over Ukraine, saying that Putin was determined to escalate the conflict anyway.
He said: “I have been against the imposition of a no-fly zone by Nato in Ukraine, believing that it would surely escalate the conflict, but Putin seems hell-bent on escalation. So the question is becoming: does Nato fight him now or fight him later?”
He said a no-fly zone could be imposed only if the West was willing to back it up with ground troops. In comments on Twitter, Deverell said that Putin would probably respond with nuclear threats but the logic had to be that his threats were meaningless.
“Whatever he can do to us, we can do to him,” he said.
Russia has been accused of an intense bombardment of Ukrainian cities and indiscriminately targeting civilians from the air, something that the Ukrainian government has said could be stopped if the West imposed a no-fly zone. Nato has ruled out imposing a no-fly zone, however, because it has warned that such a move would lead to direct confrontation with Russia; the West would have to be prepared to enforce it by shooting Russian planes out of the sky.
Some British ministers also believe, however, that Putin is determined to take the whole of Ukraine and once he has done so could push into other territory, such as the Baltic states, which would cause confrontation between the West and Russia.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence select committee, has repeatedly said that the West needed to do more to stop Putin. He has previously said that the West should impose a no-fly zone to prevent barrel bombs being dropped.
In comments today, he called for more Nato aircraft to be given to Ukraine so they can keep up the fight after it emerged that discussions were taking place between the US and Poland about Poland supplying Ukraine with its ageing Soviet-era combat aircraft from its own fleet. Under the plans, Poland would receive US-made F-16 planes in return for giving Ukraine some of its Soviet-made MiG-29s, familiar to Ukrainian pilots, from the fleet it inherited after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Ellwood said: “I hope any Nato states with Su-27s or MiG-29s are now repainting insignia and gifting these jets to Ukraine then other Nato states can infill with their respective air assets.”
He added that for the deal with Poland to work it would have to be a properly co-ordinated Nato operation as otherwise the country could end up being vulnerable to Russian attack. He said that in the longer term, Ukrainian pilots flying MiG-29s could be trained to use F-16s in as little as two months by wartime standards. Ellwood is also urging the UK to increase its defence spending by billions of pounds to 3 per cent of national income.
Ukrainian military sources have said that there are tens of Ukrainian pilots ready to defend the skies but they need the planes to do so. One said the Polish jets would be “very useful” and that they had “a number of pilots who can use them immediately”.
Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s former president, said that military aid should be supplied to his country to help in the fight against the Russians, saying that without the aircraft there is “no other way out”. He told Sky News: “We need to be united. This is not a war against Ukraine, this is a war against the whole West. Against US, against Europe, against the UK.
“We need a plane — a military jet. I’m absolutely confident we have no other way out. We like to have the plane now because we need to protect our airspace.
“We don’t need now the American pilots, we don’t need now the American soldiers: just give us the opportunity to protect you.”