Democrat wants Biden to defy Putin by staging a Berlin-like airlift to save Kyiv
Michael Isokoff and Daniel Klaidman – March 4, 2022
WASHINGTON — The United States should start planning for a Berlin airlift-style operation to save the people of Kyiv from Russian encirclement and start considering the deployment of NATO troops to western Ukraine, said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a former assistant secretary of state for human rights under former President Barack Obama.
“We are going to have to face some tough choices in the coming weeks,” Malinowski said in an interview on the Yahoo News “Skullduggery” podcast. “We need to be bold. It’s a new world.” Malinowski acknowledged that such actions would be “very, very risky,” especially the introduction of NATO troops — a move that could lead to a direct confrontation with the Russian military. And yet, Malinowski said, the alternative might well be Russian troops on the border of Poland, Romania and Hungary as well as “the complete elimination of the Ukrainian state.”
What follows is an edited transcript of Malinowski’s conversation with “Skullduggery” hosts Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman.
Michael Isikoff: So we have all been watching in horror the savagery of the Russian attack on Ukraine. The question at this juncture — after the bombing of the nuclear reactor, the use of cluster bombs targeting civilians — are we doing enough to stop Vladimir Putin?
Tom Malinowski: I don’t know if he can be stopped. I know that he can be made to lose, I know that we can ensure that, as terrible as this is, he and his regime and what he stands for come out of this defeated and that the United States and our allies come out stronger and more united. I had a list for the Biden administration of a whole bunch of things I wanted them to do two weeks ago, one week ago. They’ve done most of those things. … But we are also going to have to face some tough choices in the coming weeks. There are some decisions we haven’t made yet that Putin might force us to make as this gets worse and worse.
Daniel Klaidman: So what are some of those tough choices?
Malinowski: Imagine Kyiv is totally surrounded in the coming days and weeks. Right now, we’re getting supplies in and out, food, ammunition, everything else. But if it’s completely blockaded, do we launch something like the  Berlin airlift, where American military aircraft are flying in supplies to the people who are defending that city? It would be consistent with Biden’s policy. It wouldn’t be shooting at the Russians, it would be daring them to shoot at us, though, and of course it would be very, very risky.
Klaidman: Why wouldn’t they shoot at us under those circumstances, if they have Kyiv surrounded and they’re trying to cut off supplies going into the city and we start flying them in?
Malinowski: They didn’t shoot at us when we were flying stuff into Berlin because that would have been starting the war. … The rules of the road between the United States and Russia set during the Cold War are that we can fight each other with proxies but we don’t fight each other directly because that would trigger potentially a catastrophic, potentially nuclear war. … I think we need to be bold. If you look at the history of the Berlin airlift, it was successful in a practical sense. It got food to people in Berlin who needed it, but it was also a huge moral and psychological victory for the United States in the Cold War.
Klaidman: Do you know if the Biden administration is actively considering that?
Malinowski: I think they’re aware that we may face this kind of circumstance. I raised it in a hearing at the Foreign Affairs Committee a couple days ago with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. … We need to be bold. It’s a new world.
Isikoff: Is Putin a rational actor at this point?
Malinowski: If you’d asked me a few years ago, maybe even a few months ago, I would have said that the man is evil, but rational. Ruthless, but not disconnected from reality. I’m having second thoughts about that [laughs] right now because he seems to have deceived himself about what Ukraine has become over the last 10 years, how united the people of Ukraine are in believing in their own national identity and independence and European path, how even the Russian speaking population of Ukraine hates the idea of this Russian aggression and, of course, how fiercely Ukrainians would resist a Russian invasion. He seems to have believed his propaganda in this case, with disastrous consequences for himself and for his country.
Isikoff: So if he’s not a rational actor, how does that change the calculus about what we do?
Malinowski: He certainly wants us to believe right now that he’s capable of anything and he wants us, with that possibility in mind, to hesitate in taking certain steps to protect Ukraine. And I think it would be irresponsible for us not to take into account the possibility that he might do incredibly dangerous things. And yet, at the same time, I don’t think he starts a nuclear war over humanitarian aid deliveries or even deliveries of ammunition.
Klaidman: You said that this is a new world. For Americans who may say, “Well, this is happening half a world away from me, it doesn’t really affect my life,” what would you tell them?
Malinowski: When Hitler seized part of Czechoslovakia in 1938, it was a small country half a world away, it didn’t affect any of our lives, but I think we understand today that it opened a Pandora’s box — that once you establish that big countries can swallow up small countries, that aggressive dictatorships can change borders with tanks, then all hell breaks loose in the world. Every single border in the world is artificial. And once borders are up for grabs, once borders can be erased by whoever has the power to do it, we’re back in the world that led to the Second World War.
Isikoff: You were recently in Ukraine, shortly before the invasion, and you met with President Zelensky. As you have watched events unfold over the last 10 days, have you been surprised by the way the Russians have gone in and the strength of the Ukrainian resistance led by Zelensky?
Malinowski: I’m impressed. I’m inspired. I’m not surprised. Every Ukrainian I spoke to when we were in Kyiv a month ago said they would fight and it didn’t seem like false bravado to me. It felt very real. They are motivated. They’re protecting their homes. They’re protecting their freedom. They’re protecting their families. I’m not surprised that the Russians are disorganized and demoralized. When Putin lies to his generals, his generals have to lie to their officers and the officers have to lie to their frontline troops. No one was in a position to tell those Russian soldiers that they were going to a foreign country that would resist them and fight for every single inch.
Isikoff: Is that just really bad intelligence by the Russians to not know the ferocity of the resistance they would face or they were just afraid to tell the truth to Vladimir Putin?
Malinowski: It’s just a lie. It’s what happens when you have a government that is based on lies. There’s no process in the Kremlin where the dictator gets intelligence briefings from people who tell him what he doesn’t want to hear. This is a one-man dictatorship. And, by the way, Russia’s not had a one-man dictatorship since Stalin.
Klaidman: How concerned were you about the attack on the nuclear plant?
Malinowski: It seems to me they could have destroyed it fairly easily with an artillery barrage. So maybe it was a deliberate attempt to terrorize us and the Ukrainians by getting close to the plant.
Isikoff: If Putin is in fact as you say the most powerful dictator in Russia since Stalin, it does raise the question, can he be deposed?
Malinowski: Putin’s behavior is driven by the knowledge that he can be deposed. This is why he fears Ukraine because Ukraine is the country closest to Russia in history and culture and geography where the people did depose a corrupt and authoritarian leader. He hates the example that the Ukrainians set for the Russian people. This is why he wants to crush the place. So he’s paranoid about it. But it is incredibly hard.
Klaidman: If Russia succeeds in taking over the country, then the war against a sovereign nation might be over. But an insurgency will just be starting. What role should the U.S. play in that effort? Should we be training insurgents on the ground in Ukraine or is that too dangerous for us?
Malinowski: So two things here. No. 1, the Russians may be able to, probably will be able to defeat the Ukrainian army in the cities that they’re attacking, but there’s no way that they can hold and govern these places. They may have had the fantasy of installing a puppet government in Kyiv, but who the heck is gonna follow that government? Who — civil servants aren’t going to go into their offices. There’s no police or military force in Ukraine that can enforce the orders of such a government. So that means the Russians will have to stay in force, and if they stay in force, they will be targets because they’re hated overwhelmingly by pretty much everybody there.
Now, what do we do about it? One of the big question marks right now is what happens to western Ukraine. The assumption of the Western policymakers was that at the beginning of this was that the worst-case scenario was Putin takes Kyiv and Kharkiv and southern Ukraine, but that he was not going to even try to go as far as Western Ukraine, the city of Lviv [near] the Polish border. Because this is the most Western-oriented, nationalistic, non-Russian-speaking part of the country. I think all bets are off right now. I think he, Putin, right now wants to take the whole damn thing. … And if he is planning to go for it, I think it does raise more serious questions about a Western military intervention. A no-fly zone would require the United States to shoot at Russians from the get-go. But would we consider, for example, preemptively with NATO allies putting a force in western Ukraine, drawing a line and saying, “You’re not crossing that line. We’re gonna have a divided Ukraine like East and West Germany, North and South Korea during the Cold War.”
Isikoff: Are you urging such a course right now?
Malinowski: I think it’s something we have to be thinking about.
Isikoff: To put in U.S. military troops on the ground in western Ukraine to deter the Russians?
Malinowski: I think we do need to at least think through the potential risks and benefits of having a NATO force, not necessarily U.S. troops, but obviously it would have to be guaranteed if we did this by U.S. air power in that portion of Ukraine.
Klaidman: So that’s an area where the Russians currently are not present at all, so there would be no risk of a shooting war?
Malinowski: Imagine they do take Kyiv and even Odessa. They’re going to be battered. They’re not going to be in much of a position to take on a Western military or any military after that. All they will have is the nuclear option. And of course that’s the scary part. Would they initiate such a war under those circumstances is the question that policy makers would have to ask.
Isikoff: That seems like a pretty big risk to take if we’re talking about whether the Russians might initiate a nuclear war.
Malinowski: It is perhaps a very big risk. On the other hand, the alternative might be the Russian army on the Polish border, on the Romanian border, on the Hungarian border, the complete elimination of the Ukrainian state.