Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine presents a dilemma for Western policymakers. Direct military intervention risks unacceptable escalation, particularly for NATO members. But letting Russian aggression against a European democracy go unchecked will have devastating, long-term consequences for the Ukrainian people, European security, and the entire concept of a rules-based international order.
The threat of massive economic sanctions failed to deter Russian aggression. Nor does their rapid and comprehensive implementation seem likely to compel Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon his violent campaign anytime soon.
NATO thus needs military options that will help Ukraine’s conventional forces avoid defeat, impose heavier costs on the Russian military to strengthen Kyiv’s hand at the bargaining table, and allow time for sanctions to take effect. Unfortunately, the option that appears to be gaining the most rhetorical support among some former high-ranking military officers and senior government officials—the imposition of a no-fly zone—is highly escalatory yet unlikely to work.
Thankfully, NATO has other options. Below are six such alternative measures. Each option would be far less escalatory than a no-fly zone and would provide Ukraine’s military forces with quick and valuable assistance. They are based on compelling historical precedents and would allow NATO to manage risks by exploiting the very gray zone tactics pundits have long treated as the exclusive domain of its adversaries.
1. Train Ukrainian volunteers to use man-portable systems.
Weaponry is flowing into Ukraine from Western partners, including much-needed anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. Shoulder-launched missiles in particular are vital to thwarting air assaults, especially if conventional air defense capabilities are unavailable or engaged elsewhere.
However, Ukraine has a shortage of trained crews to operate these weapons. Western nations could fill this gap by training expatriate Ukrainian volunteers on man-portable missile systems before they return home to fight, similar to the training Western militaries have already been providing to Ukrainian troops inside the country.
At the beginning of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel did not possess any of the then-cutting-edge anti-tank missiles that later proved extremely valuable. Shortly after hostilities commenced, Israel’s embassy in Washington mobilized Israeli students studying at U.S. universities. The U.S. Army then rushed those students through a rapid training program, after which the U.S. Air Force provided airlift support to get them—and their missiles—into the conflict zone as part of Operation Nickel Grass. The entire operation was put into motion quickly enough that these trainees made it into the Middle East’s theater and destroyed a number of enemy tanks before the almost two-week war concluded.
Ukrainian expatriates in Europe and the United States, especially those with prior military training, who want to return home to fight could be diverted first to short, intensive training courses at European military bases for using Javelin, Stinger, and other shoulder-launch missiles. This could also be extended to other munitions platforms and additional training as needed.
2. Facilitate civilian cyber activities.
Civilian hacking groups, including Anonymous, have already begun independently targeting Russia and Belarus by crashing government websites, leaking classified documents, and hacking state-run media outlets.
These grassroot cyberattacks are certainly eye-catching. Yet they are unlikely to fundamentally blunt Russia’s war effort, if only because they are being executed by a loose-knit community of cyber activists that possess high levels of technical skills but lack the contextual knowledge to maximize the damage of their efforts. NATO can help fill this gap by finding ways to “guide from behind” to coordinate what will otherwise amount to a series of disparate and uncoordinated attacks.
Russia takes this approach to an extreme by employing private actors as cyber auxiliaries. During their 2007 distributed denial-of-service attacks on Estonia, Russian intelligence agencies provided software and guidance to ordinary citizens or “patriotic hackers” who wanted to punish Estonia for removing a World War II-era statue memorializing the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany.
NATO should take a different approach. Because many hackers—especially those affiliated with groups like Anonymous—are deeply distrustful of government authority, NATO should not recruit cyber activists to work for U.S. or European government agencies. Instead, NATO should adopt a hands-off approach that maximizes plausible deniability and avoids antagonizing hackers who harbor anti-government sentiments.
Rather than hire hackers and direct their operations, NATO can suggest cyber objectives that just so happen to be of particular strategic importance. For example, NATO cyberunits could set up front organizations that identify lesser-known Russian government agencies, Russian companies that produce military components, and organizations that are known fronts for Russian cyber efforts.
More controversially, NATO could also facilitate knowledge transfers by finding creative ways to leak bits of code or zero-day exploits that can help hackers engineer attacks on Russian networks. NATO member states should also begin to consider ways to protect hackers operating on their territory from legal liability and prosecution by Russia and its allies.
3. Provide unmanned combat air vehicles.
Ukraine’s Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones are virtually the only airborne platform Ukraine is successfully striking Russian ground forces with. This is remarkable given both Russia’s air
defenses, which have successfully neutralized Ukraine’s manned fighter aircraft, and the small numbers of TB2 drones supplied. Given how strung out Russia’s armored columns are and how poor their short-range air defenses appear to be, providing more drones and drone-borne munitions could make a difference in interdicting supply lines and slowing Russian movements. Any forward supply depots for fuel or ammunition created by the Russians on Ukrainian soil could also be tempting targets.
Azerbaijan used drones extensively during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war to defeat Armenia’s Russian-style army. They destroyed significant quantities of Armenian military equipment and convoys, eventually leading to operational paralysis. The Armenians would hunker down under camouflage rather than risk airstrikes by operating in the open or resupplying their units.
TB2s would be the top priority, as the Ukrainian military is already well versed in operating them, but they are not the only choice. Selling, loaning, or giving U.S. MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones to Ukraine is a viable option if the U.S. State Department removes self-imposed export restrictions, which are based on how it interprets the Missile Technology Control Regime, and approves direct commercial sales of these radio-controlled aircraft.
In the meantime, Western nations could provide Ukraine with Chinese-made models, such as the Wing Loong, or commercial off-the-shelf options like the Mavic or the Phantom. A number of countries—including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Nigeria—purchased Wing Loong drones after the United States refused to export armed Predators to them.
NATO members could therefore purchase some of these Wing Loong drones under the table for transfer to Ukraine, promising to provide better U.S. or Israeli drone systems in return. Phantom drones could also augment intelligence-gathering for the Ukrainian military as well as add to their capacity to film successful operations and document Russian attacks that may be prosecuted as war crimes.
4. Provide replacement fighter aircraft.
Ukraine’s Air Force has shown remarkable resilience and continues to deny Russia air superiority, which impedes Russia’s ability to conduct airstrikes and establish air bridges to resupply its forward ground forces. Yet Ukraine is taking substantial losses and is likely to run out of planes before it runs out of pilots. Although real-time data is hard to come by, open-source reporting suggests Ukraine has lost less than 10 percent of the nearly 100 manned combat aircraft it had at the war’s start. Additionally, when fighter aircraft are used in combat and flown often and hard, they break and require extensive maintenance.
Accordingly, the Ukrainian military is in desperate need of fighter aircraft to sustain its air force.
European air forces typically maintain at least two pilots for every aircraft, so a proportion of pilots will be able to return to combat if their planes are destroyed—either while the plane is on the ground and unoccupied or because the pilot managed to eject and survive being shot down while in the air.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, after a week of intensive fighting, all of the combatants—Israel, Egypt, and Syria—ran out of aircraft but had many surviving qualified pilots. Rushed fighter aircraft deliveries from U.S. and Warsaw Pact stocks kept their air forces operational until the war’s end. A similar approach could help keep the Ukrainian Air Force flying, and sourcing these aircraft is not difficult.
The best option is to supply aircraft that Ukrainian pilots already know how to operate: MiG-29 fighters and Su-25 ground attack aircraft. For example, Poland has 28 MiG-29s available to immediately transfer to Ukraine. Although it might seem strange to saddle Ukraine with old aircraft, the fact is that these are the platforms Ukrainian pilots already know how to fly and Ukrainian mechanics know how to repair. Because MiG-29s and Su-25s are Soviet-era aircraft, NATO does not have newer ones to offer. And providing Ukraine with F-16s or other NATO-produced jets would require Ukrainian pilots and mechanics alike to undergo extensive training before they could use them in combat.
A recent plan to send Polish aircraft to Ukraine attracted a lot of media attention before being blocked by the United States. However, such a transfer could still be accomplished quietly and in a way that reduces escalation risks. Because Poland and Ukraine share a border, the Poles could move their MiG-29s to roads next to Ukraine and Ukrainians could then tow them over the border—not unlike how the United States got around the Neutrality Acts in 1940 by positioning aircraft along the Canadian border, where they were towed into Canada and flown off to the United Kingdom.
5. Recruit volunteer pilots and ground crews.
In addition to aircraft, the Ukrainian Air Force will eventually need more pilots and ground crews to keep flying. This presents a dilemma, as it takes a long time to train pilots and maintenance crews and these roles cannot easily be filled by local volunteers or other military personnel. Their training also has to match the aircraft they will be deployed to fly or maintain. Although NATO and other Western governments will hesitate to directly supply military pilots, they can still help in less escalatory and more deniable ways, mainly by facilitating Eastern European volunteers.
Before the United States officially entered World War II, then-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized U.S. Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots to fly U.S.-made aircraft for China against Japan. The 99 U.S. pilots who originally comprised the American Volunteer Group (known as the “Flying Tigers”) were discharged from the U.S. armed forces, hired by the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, and then traveled overseas to fly for China. These pilots were paid better than both American and Chinese pilots and made this move with the clear understanding that they would be welcomed to rejoin the U.S. armed forces after. The Flying Tigers ultimately helped impede Japan’s offensives in Burma by contesting Japanese air superiority.
A similar model could be adopted to assist Ukraine. Volunteer pilots and ground crews from NATO countries that operate aircraft similar to those used by Ukraine (e.g., Bulgaria, Poland, and Slovakia) could be offered leaves of absence from their own national armed or reserve forces, hired as contractors by the Ukrainian military, and provided with both Ukrainian brevet ranks and passports.
Although Russia has already said it will treat foreign fighters as mercenaries, doing so to a downed pilot wearing a Ukrainian uniform and carrying a Ukrainian passport would represent a violation of the Geneva Conventions. That said, to reduce such risks, members of any such NATO volunteer group should be restricted to flying missions well behind the forward edge of the battlefield so if they are shot down, they would land well inside Ukrainian-held territory. If the conflict drags on, this program can be expanded to include conversion training so as to include pilots and ground crews who do not have experience flying Soviet-era aircraft.
6. Support the continuity of government.
One of the keys to prolonging Ukraine’s resistance is preparing for the eventuality that Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, falls to the Russians. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to remain in Kyiv and defend his capital energized Ukraine’s resistance and gained widespread international support.
However, Russia has prioritized capturing or killing Ukraine’s senior political and military leaders from the beginning of its invasion. Russian forces may very well achieve this goal in their coming battle for Kyiv.
Ukraine’s government therefore needs to designate and telegraph a continuity of government plan in the not-impossible scenario that Russia finds a way to capture or kill Zelensky and his key subordinates. Zelensky is, of course, unlikely to leave the capital so long as resistance is possible. Therefore, any such realistic plan will likely need to establish a parallel government-in-waiting that is located in a relatively safe (and undisclosed) part of western Ukraine and is prepared to immediately assume the duties of the president and his cabinet in the event any or all are incapacitated.
Robust planning for continuity of government both ensures that the Ukrainian people will view successor authorities as legitimate and signals to Russia that it cannot end the conflict even with a successful decapitation strike. Similarly, Ukraine should begin planning for continued organized resistance from more defensible terrain, likely somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine.
The closest parallel for this can be found in France’s Government of National Defense during the Franco-Prussian War. As the Prussians attempted to take Paris in 1870 and 1871, France’s government divided itself into three parts. Then-French President Louis-Jules Trochu remained in besieged Paris to hearten its defenders, the National Assembly relocated itself far away from enemy lines to Bordeaux, and then-Interior Minister Léon Gambetta based himself in the Loire Valley, where he oversaw military efforts to relieve Paris. With France’s government thus divided, the Prussians could not terminate the war by capturing any one portion of it.
Much of this work will of course need to be done by Zelensky’s government. However, Western states can help by providing advice on implementation, facilitating communication links, and sending equipment and resources to help fortify the chosen alternative location(s).
None of these actions by themselves provide a guarantee against Ukraine’s military defeat at Russia’s hands. Each comes with the potential of escalation. However, escalation is often a necessary step in convincing your adversary to change course. Accordingly, NATO member states and partners should consider these suggestions when assessing how to assist Ukraine. After all, existing measures are unlikely to tip the military balance in Ukraine’s favor at the same time as they prolong the conflict—and therefore, Ukrainian suffering.
Nor should we deceive ourselves: The risk of escalation is ever present regardless of what actions the West takes to support Ukraine. Putin has already shown he will manufacture a pretext when his adversaries are too smart to give him one. NATO should therefore be prepared for the eventuality that Putin may choose to view even existing efforts as a casus belli if he wishes to directly engage in conflict with the alliance. To date, Putin’s rhetoric is doing more to deter action by NATO than NATO is doing to deter Putin from committing crimes against humanity. Continued deferral to Putin’s perception management operations will have grave consequences for NATO.
Meeting the moment is vital: As always, the West must carefully calibrate its response to Russia, but at the same time, it must remember that allowing Putin to succeed in his callous invasion of a neighboring democratic state will have reverberations throughout global security that cannot be dismissed or allowed to occur through insufficient action.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the views or positions of any part of the U.S. or U.K. governments.