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May 31, 2024, 6:17am EDT
politics

Inside the NATO debate over protecting Ukraine’s skies

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo
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The News

A debate between NATO allies about whether to take a more aggressive role in protecting Ukraine’s skies, including by directly shooting down Russian missiles and drones, has picked up steam in recent weeks.

“Whether it’s done by NATO or NATO countries … that’s one of the issues we want to have a discussion on,” one European official said. A senior NATO official told Semafor that “a lot of these discussions” are not taking place collectively at the NATO level but rather between individual member states.

The conversation has been ongoing inside the alliance for some time but “took on a little bit more realism” after the US and allies shot down Iranian drones bound for Israel back in April, said Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO.

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But the proposal has significant roadblocks and is a divisive idea within the alliance. Poland and Romania are “very interested” in the idea, Volker said, but he noted that the US and Germany have been resistant to it due to the risk of drawing NATO directly into a conflict with Russia.

When asked about the possibility of NATO air defenses shooting down missiles over Ukraine at a meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly this week, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg replied that “the more you are supportive of Ukraine, the more cautious we should be to ask for things that can divide us.”

“I’m not holding my breath right now with regard to actively providing air defense for Ukraine from NATO countries,” a second European official said, citing Washington’s opposition to Western countries getting directly involved in military operations. “European nations will look to the US for leadership, and I feel that we are not yet in a place where the US would seriously reconsider the whole strategy around Ukraine.”

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Poland, which borders western Ukraine, has repeatedly signaled that such a policy is under consideration. Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Shejnahas has said that NATO is analyzing whether “missiles should be shot down when they are very close to the NATO border.”

“For the time being, no decisions have been made in this matter,” a spokesperson for the Polish Ministry of National Defense told Semafor, noting that “the possible coverage of part of Ukraine’s territory by allied air defense is an extremely complex issue.”

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The View From Ukraine

Yehor Cherniev, a Ukrainian MP and chair of the Ukrainian delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, told Semafor that “we have to think about a common system of air defense.”

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Russian missiles have repeatedly crossed into Poland and Romania, so a joint system would help not just Ukraine, but also protect NATO states, Cherniev argued. He said that sharing alerts about missile strikes, having other countries shoot down Russian missiles, or improving interoperability with neighboring air defense forces would all be welcome steps.

In an interview with The New York Times, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also argued for similar support, saying that NATO should shoot down Russian missiles over Ukraine without the aircraft entering Ukrainian airspace.

“Is it an attack on Russia? No. Are you shooting down Russian planes and killing Russian pilots? No. So what’s the issue with involving NATO countries in the war? There is no such issue,” Zelenskyy said.

Ukraine’s air defenses have increasingly struggled to cope with Russia’s aerial campaign, as the Kremlin has ramped up its attacks, improved its tactics, and started firing harder-to-intercept weapons. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, Ukraine intercepted just 46% of Russian missiles in the last six months, far less than its 73% success rate in the preceding six-month period.

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Mathias and Morgan's View

European countries are unlikely to start shooting down Russian missiles, at least in the short-term. The military logistics required are complicated, and the politics of doing so are even trickier.

“If you’re going to engage targets over Ukrainian airspace, there needs to be some kind of coordination mechanism so that Ukrainian weapons don’t conflict with NATO weapons and the identification of Russian missiles is clear to all sides,” William Taylor, a former US ambassador to NATO, said.

The fact there would be at least two command-and-control arrangements, and that multiple countries would be involved in identifying friendly versus enemy targets, “would make it difficult,” Taylor said. “The best case is when there is one system.”

NATO countries would also be increasing their level of engagement in the war, he said, because non-Ukrainian troops would be firing weapons at Russian targets.

The second European official said “the problem with air defenses is really targeting, because friendly fire happens. I don’t want to compare NATO to Russia, but we saw how many friendly fire incidents Russia itself has had.”

Still, the fact that this idea is even being discussed openly speaks to a growing European willingness to think seriously about how to step up support for Ukraine in ways that would have been unimaginable a year ago, and to dispense with the self-imposed red lines Western countries have previously issued.

France’s Emmanuel Macron in particular, has long grated at the West’s willingness to announce the limits for its support for Kyiv, and called on NATO to adopt a strategy of “strategic ambiguity” to leave the Kremlin guessing.

“We have things that are actually on the table that were not on the table before, putting Moscow in a more uncertain position about what we would do and what we wouldn’t do,” the second European official said.

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Room for Disagreement

The trajectory of the war could significantly influence the debate, particularly if the Russians make major gains despite other policy shifts.

The US has now relaxed restrictions on Ukraine’s use of US-supplied weapons to hit targets inside parts of Russia.

With that ban eased, if the Russians continue to target Odesa and cities and western Ukraine, and especially if they target energy infrastructure, Volker argued countries in favor of shooting down Russian missiles over Ukraine would likely push the issue more aggressively.

“I don’t expect NATO to adopt a policy on this,” he said, but he added that countries comprising a “coalition of the willing” are getting “closer and closer” to doing it.

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Notable

  • NATO has just 5% of the air defenses needed to protect its eastern flank in the event of an invasion, the Financial Times reported.
  • Ukraine will be allowed to use F-16s donated by Denmark to strike military targets in Russia, the Danish foreign minister told reporters on Thursday.
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