Russia, Evoking Boiled Frogs and Salami, Predicts Ukraine Will Get Fighter Jets in Weeks

A Russian analysis sees escalation of the Ukraine war by the West, but in small stages.

AP/Daniel Cole
A boy stands on a destroyed Russian tank displayed at Kyiv, January 31, 2023. AP/Daniel Cole

President Biden has said no to sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, but oddly enough Russia is not taking that as a nyet. The dust may have barely settled on the matter of delivering better combat tanks to Ukraine, but the thinking at Moscow is that Washington could send the planes to Ukraine within two months, which would coincide with widely anticipated spring offensives from both the Russian and Ukrainian sides. 

An article in the Kremlin-linked Komsomolskaya Pravda cites the apologue of the boiling frog to assert that while supplying Ukraine with fighter jets right now would be deemed by many in the West to be too escalatory, over time it will become a fait accompli. Throw a frog into a pot of boiling water and it will jump out, the fable goes, but raise the heat gradually and eventually it will be cooked. As with “cutting salami into small, thin” pieces, the Russian analysis goes, it is indeed escalation, but in small stages. 

Russians are far from the first to evoke the cold frog in a hot pot theory, but with respect to the rapid developments in Ukraine this has some noteworthy strategic implications. The first is that Moscow has already acknowledged the escalation of the conflict over time, citing the expected delivery for the first time of longer-range rockets as part of a new $2 billion military aid package for Ukraine as one example. That there would be no escalation at all had Vladimir Putin not launched the invasion a year ago is an irony apparently lost on the Kremlin.

As the Russian newspaper noted, though, the escalation “proceeds so slowly that it does not cause anything other than routine statements about crossing red lines, which in general are not followed by any real responses from our country.” If that seems like fatalistic language for a country at war, it is also something of an admission that the provision of more advanced weaponry and materiel is already expected by Moscow, and part of its planning.

Cut to a statement that Boris Johnson made to the Atlantic Council on Wednesday: “Every time we’ve been asked to intensify our support, we’ve been met with the same argument that we risk an escalation by Putin. How can we seriously worry about provoking him when we have seen what he will do, without the slightest provocation?” 

Mr. Johnson added: “I don’t think it would take the Ukrainians very long to work out how to use F-16 or Typhoons.” That same sentiment, absent the specifics, was echoed by Washington’s ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, in an interview with Britain’s Sky News. While Downing Street has also ruled out sending Kyiv fighter jets, the British defense secretary, Ben Wallace, says that the United Kingdom has not yet made a “solid decision” with respect to the combat aircraft. 

Are the American-made F-16s as vital to Ukraine’s fight as Germany’s vaunted Leopard 2s? A Greek aerospace engineer and colonel in the Hellenic Air Force, Konstantinos Zikidis, told Al Jazeera that “it’s not a panacea, not a game-changer.”

A retired four-star Air Force general and former commander of the U.S. European Command, Philip Breedlove, has called the situation in the skies over Ukraine as one of “mutual denial” in which “Ukraine performed much better than expected, and Russia failed in many things it needed to do to take control of the battlefield.” The nuances of air defense strategy are complex, but suffice to say that fighter jets could help Ukrainian forces break the deadlock in the Donbas and also help to repel a massive Russian attack should one come in the spring. 

Without veering too much into Kremlinology — “We need to stop focusing on Putin,” as Mr. Johnson told his audience at Washington — it is also interesting to consider what one of Komsomolskaya Pravda’s resident “Americanists” has to say about Washington’s long-term strategy on Ukraine. “Does America want all this to drag on, so that the ‘frog’ is endlessly warmed up?” it asks. And “if the scenario of the maximum weakening of Russia works, who then will benefit from this? America won’t win, China will win.”

It is difficult, of course, to mention frogs and Europe in the same sentence without thinking, if only in culinary terms, of France. A former French president, François Hollande, has warned that if the eventual job of mediating between Presidents Putin and Zelensky falls to Turkey or China, “it won’t be reassuring for anyone.”

That is more food for thought, though Beijing is likely not in the present thinking at Berlin or Budapest. The view from Warsaw is more top gun than cut and run. Poland is one NATO member that would unambiguously like to see F-16s shoring up Ukrainian defenses sooner rather than later. The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said this week that Poland would be ready to provide Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets if NATO gives the go-ahead.

The New York Sun

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