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People gather amid the destruction caused after shelling of a shopping centre, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 21.Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press

Former U.S. military commanders critical of NATO’s passive stand in the Ukraine war are calling for humanitarian airlifts to Kyiv and other cities facing Russian attacks.

“We could and should address the humanitarian side with a military airlift capability that would be escorted by fighters with the advertised position that we’re not looking to engage the Russians in air-to-air combat, but if fired upon we’ll retaliate,” said James Jones, NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe (SACEUR) from 2003 to 2006 and later national security adviser to Barack Obama.

“The humanitarian situation, which is catastrophic and getting worse, is a perfect entrée point for doing something that’s positive and that virtually everybody in the world would support and probably say: What took you so long?” he added.

Three other former NATO SACEURs – Wesley Clark, Joseph Ralston and Philip Breedlove – voiced support for airlifts during a March 16 event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. And this week, NATO, G7 and EU leaders are meeting in Brussels to discuss how to deal with the growing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, which has seen at least 10 million people displaced by Russian bombardments, with many lacking access to food, water and medicine.

“This airspace belongs to Ukraine,” said Mr. Clark, who commanded NATO forces during the 1998-1999 Kosovo War. “It does not belong to Russia. It is not occupied wingtip to wingtip by Russian aircraft. And much of it is open most of the time. And there’s no reason why we can’t, at the invitation of the government of Ukraine, use that airspace for humanitarian purposes, to establish a safe zone, to establish an air corridor, to prevent the isolation of Kyiv.”

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Displaced Ukrainians onboard a Poland bound train in Lviv, western Ukraine, on March 13.Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press

The last time a major air bridge was created in wartime was the multinational effort to supply Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. From 1992 to 1996, a UN humanitarian airlift flew 12,895 sorties to Sarajevo and delivered 160,536 tonnes of aid. Operation Provide Promise was the biggest airlift in history and involved 21 countries.

“Ukraine’s a very big country, and there’s a lot of people in that country who are going to be in humanitarian distress very quickly. It’s not just a matter of landing it in Kyiv. It’s a matter of Mariupol. It’s a matter of Kharkiv. It’s a matter of Zaporizhzhia. It’s a matter of Dnipro and Vinnytsia,” Mr. Clark said.

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Repeated pleading by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a no-fly zone to be imposed over Ukraine has failed to sway NATO. U.S. President Joe Biden believes it risks aerial combat with Russian forces and would require neutralizing anti-aircraft weapons located inside Russian territory.

The White House also cited the risk of escalating the war into one between NATO and Russia for its decision to scupper a Polish plan to supply Ukraine with MiG-29 fighter jets that Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly. Poland had offered to fly 23 MiG-29s to a U.S. air base in Germany for transfer to Ukraine. In exchange, Poland wanted to buy used, U.S.-made F-16 jets.

Mr. Ralston, who served in the U.S. Air Force, said there was more to the dust-up than what has been revealed by Washington and Warsaw. The MiG-29s originally belonged to East Germany. After German reunification, the Bundeswehr chose to take over a MiG-29 regiment at Laage Airfield, where Mr. Ralston got to fly one of the planes himself in 2002. The Germans complained about maintenance issues, as all the spare parts had to come from Russia.

“That’s why Germany decided a few years ago to sell those airplanes to Poland. And I think Poland paid €2 an airplane for them. And people at the time said they overpaid. So, the Poles now got these MiG-29s that they couldn’t maintain. And when this recent situation happened, I think Poland saw an opportunity,” Mr. Ralston explained.

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An apartment complex damaged by shelling in the Obolon district in Kyiv, on March 14.LYNSEY ADDARIO/The New York Times News Service

Fewer than half the Polish MiG-29s are flyable, he suspects, and those that can fly may soon need spares. Since “Moscow is not going to be interested in sending spare parts to Ukrainian MiG-29s,” the best use of the Polish jets would be to have them cannibalized for spares for Ukraine’s own MiG-29s, he said. (The following day, six Russian cruise missiles destroyed the Lviv State Aircraft Repair Plant near the border with Poland.)

The four former generals vented their frustration with bureaucratic obstacles in the way of getting military aid to Ukraine and legal arguments over what constitutes co-belligerency.

“I keep getting reports of things that are in the pipeline – oh, but there’s a lawyer somewhere. This is hung up here, this is hung up there … When I talk to people in Ukraine, they don’t have it. So where is it? Is it in Poland? Is it still stuck up in the Washington bureaucracy? How’s it going to get in there?” Mr. Clark fumed.

“We’ve got a very narrow window … to keep the corridors of reinforcement or resupply open into Kyiv. How narrow a window? Is it three days? A week? Two weeks? We don’t know. But one thing we know is that long bureaucratic discussions in public about are you going to give them this or are you going to give them that, this country says yes, that country says no, NATO says absolutely not – all that does is diminish the prospect that Vladimir Putin’s going to have a very hard time,” he added.

The New York Times reported “in the White House and the Pentagon, there have been active debates over which lethal weapons delivered to Ukraine meet the nuanced interpretations of what international law allows.” Piloted planes are not permitted, but portable armed drones are, provided they “pose no threat to Russian soil.”

One idea floated by the Biden administration is for NATO member Turkey to supply Ukraine with sophisticated, long-range, Russian-made S-400 antiaircraft systems. Turkey was punished by the Trump administration for buying the systems from Russia; if it were to supply them to Ukraine, Turkey may be permitted to purchase and manufacture parts for the advanced F-35 fighter, according to the paper.

In addition to “better antiaircraft missile systems,” strike drones, “counter batteries” to attack Russian field artillery and “electronic warfare capability,” Mr. Jones said Ukraine needs “anti-ship missiles.” Russian naval forces have been massing in the Black Sea ahead of a possible assault on Odesa.

Mr. Breedlove said Mr. Putin had taken advantage of “a very passive deterrent stance” by NATO going into the Ukraine conflict. “He looked at what the West was lining up. Our leaders explained to him what was going to happen if he invaded. He measured all that up and he went in anyway,” Mr. Breedlove said. “We need now to seize the initiative back and begin an active phase of deterrence and see if that can change the outcome of the war.”

Former British prime minister Tony Blair has also criticized the messaging by NATO leaders. When Mr. Putin “is threatening NATO, even stoking fears of nuclear conflict, in pursuit of his attempt to topple by force a peaceful nation’s democratically elected president and wage war on its people, there is something incongruous about our repeated reassurance to him that we will not react with force,” he wrote in an essay published March 15 on his think tank’s website.

Mr. Clark said pushing back against Russian advances in Ukraine is critical for preserving NATO and deterring China. “If this is done right, this is it. If you want to stop the Third World War, the place to stop it is on the ground in Ukraine,” he said.

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