The humanitarian aid HQ that provides assistance to civilians and the military in Lviv, Ukraine.

The humanitarian aid HQ that provides assistance to civilians and the military in Lviv, Ukraine. Alona Nikolaievych / Ukrinform / Future Publishing via Getty Images

It’s Time for a Protected Humanitarian Airlift into Lviv

Russia has no right to dictate who may fly into and out of Ukrainian airspace.

It is one month from now: April 19. The horrific images of indiscriminate Russian bombing and shelling of Ukrainian civilians have continued unabated. Much of Kyiv lies in rubble, as does the Black Sea port city of Odessa. Two days earlier, a United Nations report estimated that 100,000 Ukrainians have been slaughtered, and that number is increasing daily. NATO convenes an emergency North Atlantic Council to address the crisis, and the Alliance decides that now is the time to act.

Instead of waiting for this all-too-plausible scenario to unfold, the United States and its NATO allies and EU partners should act more forcefully now. Here’s one initiative that could make a difference: a U.S.-led coalition of willing NATO allies and EU partners should establish a protected air corridor and airlift humanitarian supplies to Lviv in western Ukraine.

The White House and NATO leaders have ruled out the possibility of a broad no-fly zone over Ukraine, to avoid the risk of direct combat between Russia and the western alliance, and we understand their concerns. However, a focused, strategically designed, protected humanitarian air corridor could deliver desperately needed relief to Ukrainians, including food, water, medical aid, and other humanitarian supplies. This operation would have limited objectives, geographic scope, and rules of engagement. Given the urgency, a coalition would begin operations as soon as possible and move toward full NATO and EU control as consensus builds.

There is precedent for such a measure. When Russian forces invaded Georgia in August 2008, the United States waited until a ceasefire had been declared, then established an airlift into Tbilisi. Between Aug. 13 and Sept. 4, U.S. cargo planes and Navy warships delivered more than $30 million in emergency aid, including 1,200 tons of food and relief supplies such as tents. While the George W. Bush administration received criticism for not doing more to prevent the invasion, some observers think the subsequent humanitarian effort deterred Russian forces from taking over the entire country of Georgia, including Tbilisi itself. President Bush’s national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, said at the time, “We thought it was a useful signal to use military aircraft to transfer supplies and things into Georgia, and that was not lost on the Russians.” Additionally, according to author Sarah Pruitt, "Georgia turned further away from Russian influence in the aftermath of the conflict, and signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014.” The humanitarian effort may have saved the country.

A similar effort for Ukraine could be beneficial. It would, of course, have to be at the invitation of the sovereign government of Ukraine. The parameters for such an operation would be less bellicose than an open-ended no-fly zone. The coalition would inform Russia of its intention to send humanitarian aid into Lviv via cargo aircraft protected by escort aircraft. The United States could activate the Civilian Air Reserve Fleet to reinforce the humanitarian nature of the effort, and seek to not only minimize tensions and hostility to U.S. and NATO military aircraft but also avoid costly or escalatory mistakes. Another option would be to undertake this airlift in partnership with, or under the auspices of, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

Russia has no right to dictate who may fly into and out of Ukrainian airspace. It would be desirable for Moscow to explicitly agree not to hinder the humanitarian airlift, but in any case the United States and its coalition partners should make clear that cargo aircraft will be flying into the city on a humanitarian mission, that the mission will be protected by escort aircraft, and that Russia would do well to keep any threatening military aircraft away from the protected flights. Under the right conditions, arrangements could be made for third-party observers such as the International Red Cross to inspect the cargo being flown in to assure Russia that it’s humanitarian.  

Of course, there is the risk of escalation, but that risk is not automatic. Putin doesn’t want a direct shooting war between NATO and Russia any more than NATO leaders do. His forces have their hands full with their primary military objectives in Ukraine. 

To be sure, even with these deliberate measures to lower suspicions and ensure transparency with Russia, establishing a humanitarian airlift in western Ukraine would be riskier than other efforts happening now. But those risks are worth taking immediately, for several reasons.

First, and most importantly, it would save tens and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of lives. Despite last weekend’s strikes, Western Ukraine for now remains largely safe from Russian ground and air forces, who continue to stumble in ways that Russian leader Vladimir Putin did not anticipate. In addition, UNHCR reports that more than 2.5 million refugees have now fled Ukraine. While nations are embracing large numbers of refugees—neighboring Poland has accepted more than 1 million Ukrainians—this constitutes the “largest movement of people in Europe since WWII.” As Poland and other nations reach their refugee caps, their willingness to accommodate more Ukrainian refugees may dwindle. In addition, many in Ukraine—a country of 44 million people—have been left behind, including those who have experienced racism at the border and those too sick, elderly, or poor to travel. A humanitarian effort is urgently needed to save as many lives as possible.

Secondly, it would signal strong commitment by the United States, NATO, and the EU to a free and sovereign Ukraine. In 2008, President Saakashvili of Georgia welcomed the U.S. humanitarian effort as “very strong” but “long overdue.” Critics of the Bush and President Barack Obama administrations argue that the lack of U.S. action in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014 have contributed to the current situation, in which Putin feels emboldened enough to invade all of Ukraine without significant Western interference. While the risk of a no-fly zone is being intensively debated, the risk of not establishing an escorted humanitarian airlift may be greater: Ukrainians who feel abandoned by the West may become alienated by its decision to stay on the sidelines, risking a shift away from the strong pro-EU and pro-NATO sentiments that Ukrainians have died for already. Additionally, though the West’s swift action and sweeping agreements in response to the invasion have caught Putin by surprise, repeated inaction could further embolden an increasingly unpredictable dictator to take even more lives. And if it’s successful, it could help shape an outcome of the war in which Russian forces are further away from NATO members’ borders. 

Thirdly, western Ukraine—where the population will grow increasingly hostile as the bloody war on Ukrainians drags on—will present enormous logistical challenges to the Russian military by stretching its supply lines even farther. As such, the coalition has a window to act with relative impunity in this part of the country, but that window may soon close.  

While Russia is facing international pressure, strangling sanctions, a tenacious Ukrainian fighting spirit, low morale, and stalled troops outside Kyiv, now is the time to establish a humanitarian air corridor to western Ukraine while it is still feasible. Waiting will only cost thousands of more lives and lead to a much less secure Europe for the long term. Now is the moment for a coordinated, protected humanitarian effort to spare lives, spare the Ukrainian nation, and prevent an even worse future—before it’s too late.

Philip Breedlove, a retired Air Force general, has commanded Supreme Allied Command, Europe, and U.S. European Command.

Barry Pavel is senior vice president and director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.