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  • Ukrainian tanks on maneuvers in its conflict with Russia. (Photo: )
    Ukrainian tanks on maneuvers in its conflict with Russia. (Photo: OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine )

    Rabbi Hillel coined an expression more than 2,000 years ago that’s been used by politicans across the ages to draw a line in the sand. Today, that line needs to be drawn in Ukraine.

    “If not here, where? If not now, when?” a rough translation goes.

    The second-largest country by area in Europe after Russia is under a dire threat of a full-scale military invasion at the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    President Joe Biden has offered qualified support to the embattled nation, but has drawn the line on committing ground troops.

    That’s the right call, but the United States still has substantial leeway to make Putin’s reckless adventure too costly to pursue. And, it should come in the form of qualified military intervention.

    While sending troops into direct combat is off the table, the United States can do something far more critical militarily–provide the command and control infrastructure and air power Ukraine needs to defend itself successfully.

    Such intervention will keep the United States and its western allies out of the direct line of fire, yet still contribute to Ukraine’s defense in a meaningful way.

    In the face of an invasion, command and control will be a critical element to mounting a coordinated defense designed to inflict unacceptable losses on Russian troops.

    That’s something the United States and its allies can provide in a non-combat role. The United States can also provide crucial intelligence, through satellite imagery and other means, to direct defenses and counter-attacks.

    For its offensive to be successful, Russia must maintain air superiority over Ukraine to support its troops.

    That’s another critical area where the United States can play a huge difference with only minimal exposure to combat.

    It can flood Ukraine with drones and surface-to-air missile systems to blunt Russia’s air attack, just as it’s doing now by supplying Javelin anti-tank guided missiles to thwart any armored threat.

    The surface-to-air missiles can be used against Russian planes and cruise missiles while drones, piloted from 10,000 miles away, can be used for surveillance, ground attack and air-to-air combat.

    But even that may not be enough. The United States should deploy combat aircraft, including the F-35 Lightning II and F-22 Raptor, to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

    Russia only possesses a handful of planes that can come close to matching their performance and would have to think twice about risking its limited number of fifth generation fighters.

    It’s older third and fourth generation fighters would be sitting ducks for U.S airpower.

    Commiting U.S. combat planes to a regional conflict would not be without precedent.

    In Vietnam, Soviet pilots were officially restricted to serving as consultants, instructors and flying training missions. But documented cases have surfaced where they joined dogfights.

    In the Korea War, Soviet leadership refused to commit ground troops, but Soviet pilots flew combat missions around the Yalu River Valley on the Chinese-Korean border known as “MiG Alley.”

    One Russian pilot flew more than 100 combat sorties and claimed 12 allied aerial kills. The leading Russian ace in Korea claimed 22 kills. Both are unconfirmed.

    An analysis of ground control traffic in June 1952 concluded that more than 90 percent of MiG jets engaged in air operations over North Korea were flown by Russians, according to contemporary account of the war.

    In addition, Russians provided and manned significant numbers of anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and technical units to defend North Korea.

    Like the Russians in Korea, U.S. pilots could simply fly planes with Ukrainian markings.

    Since most air operations would be limited to Ukrainian airspace, U.S. pilots would face minimal chances of being captured, if forced to eject from a cripled aircraft.

    This year, the United States has committed more than $450 million in security assistance to Ukraine, mostly in the form of army weapons.

    But Ukraine doesn’t have the force level to thwart a Russian attack, without significantly more Western support, most military experts acknoweldge.

    Unidentified gunmen on patrol at Simferopol Airport in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. (Photo: Elizabeth Arrott / VOA)

    To bolster its defenses, Ukraine is also seeking U.S. air and naval defensive weapons. Much of its navy was lost when Russia seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

    While the standoff is rooted in a regional conflict, the strategic implications extend globally.

    The reason is Putin’s desire to assert Russian hegemony, if not outright control, over all of Eastern Europe in pursuit of a Russian empire on par with the old Soviet Union.

    Militarily, Putin appears to be following a policy of incrementalism, fomenting internal dissent as a precusor to armed intervention under the specious claim that Russian citizens are at risk.

    In Georgia, Russia has created two autonomous zones under its control by fomenting an uprising. In Moldova, a small Russian force remains inside the breakaway Republic of Transnistria, which borders Ukraine, according to The Hill.

    In his boldest move, Russia, in 2014, annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in a stealth invasion.  

    The subversion of Crimea began with pro-Russian demonstrations in its principal city, Sevastopol. Russian troops without identifying insignas infiltrated and seized key strategic sites across the pininsula.

    A pro-Russian government was installed and, through a series of staged referenda, approved incorporating Crimea into Russia.

    Following the annexation in 2014, protests by Russia-backed anti-government separatists broke out in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, were low-intensity fighting continues to this day.

    Putin’s other major foreign policy goal is to destabilize Western democracies and undermine NATO, the U.S.-European self-defense organization.

    He seemed to gain some ground with the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016.

    Trump’s election effort was aided by Russian interference on his behalf, mostly through social media and the release of private emails hacked from the Democratic party and Hillary Clinton.

    Trump clearly tilted U.S. foreign policy toward Russia during his term. Today, right-wing media, including outlets like NewsMax and Fox News and particularly talking head Tucker Carlson are openly promoting Russian propaganda.

    The finding came in a declassified intelligence report released last March. It states that Putin authorized extensive efforts to interfere in the 2020 American presidential election.

    They included efforts to undermine Biden’s campaign, cast doubt on the electoral process and exacerbate sociopolitical divisions, with the goal of undermining and discrediting American democracy.

    Those issues, shockingly, sound like typical subjects for “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” “The Ingraham Angle” and “The Sean Hannity Show.”

    Ukraine’s history as a Soviet state is a relatively short one.

    In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Ukraine briefly became an independent republic. Before that, it had been ruled by a succession of empires under the Ottomans, the Hungarians and even Poland.

    In 1921, after the Bolsheviks had consolided power, Ukraine was formally incorporated into the Soviet Union and remained so until the dissolution of the communist state in 1991.

    When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine and Belarus declared independence. The Baltic States, which had earlier declared their independence, gained international recognition. Other Soviet bloc countries also broke away.

    Russia launched aggressive moves against Ukraine when violent pro-democracy riots in the capital city, Kyiv, led to the ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych by the Ukrainian parliament.

    The protest broke out after Yanukovych refused to sign a trade agreement with the European Union.

    Since then, the Ukrainian government has been moving closer to Western Europe.

    Stopping Putin’s military aggression now in Ukraine could be equivalent to stopping Hitler from invading Chechoslovakia in 1938. Had the allies done so, it may have prevented World War II.

    As it is, the rest is history. The West may be condemned to repeat it with Putin, if it fails to act forcefully.