Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative party

“Don’t you now there’s a war on?!” would be the best paraphrase of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s incredulity at Poland and the United States not being able to organise a way of supplying MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine’s embattled air force.

Ukraine fights on – alone – now beginning a fourth week against the invading Russian army and air force. They’re giving it everything they’ve got, paying a huge price for Vladimir Putin’s aggression, and our failure to take the Russian threat seriously since 2014.  Despite Ukrainians’ heroic resistance, we still haven’t fully made the shift in mindset that, even more than actual fighting, characterises the move from peace to war.

The Home Office hasn’t understood that a bureaucracy built up over years to deter refugees needs to be taken apart. Germany says it will reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas, but not yet.  Israel sits on the fence while a country with a Jewish president is targeted for destruction.  Defence ministries everywhere cavil about supplying Ukraine “defensive”, as opposed to “offensive” weapons. 

But there’s another even more serious mistake that is still being committed: to think avoiding escalation is more important than achieving victory.

“Escalation dominance” is the mind game by which Putin has, in Zelenskiy’s words, “hypnotised” the West. Don’t do anything that will make it harder for me to beat Ukraine, he says – or else.

Fear of provoking Putin is a major reason why Ukraine has not been equipped with modern air defences, overt Western training missions have left the country, and there are no Western forces there. Would Putin have invaded had there been an American, or even a Franco-British, garrison in, say, Kharkiv? The answer doesn’t start with ‘y’.

In line with Soviet doctrine, Putin has turned his sabre-rattling nuclear. Avoiding “World War Three” is the reason given for ruling out NATO troops in Ukraine; discarding a no-fly zone, and even failing to send over those MiGs.

“We can’t fight Russia” said the Prime Minister. But if we can’t fight Russia in Ukraine, why could we fight them in Poland, the Baltic States or even Germany? Would that not also be World War Three, with the same, or possibly greater, risks of nuclear escalation?

The logical conclusion of this line of thinking is that NATO’s security guarantees can’t work, and that a nuclear-armed Russia cannot be stopped. Yet during the Cold War we learned how to make the USSR stop and think, because we understood how to make sure that the threat of escalation wouldn’t pay.

The most important word in the last sentence is ‘pay’. How can Putin be convinced, as a succession of Soviet leaders, including Stalin, were, that escalation isn’t worth it?

We need to start with Putin’s notion of worth, which is not irrational, but is a little different from the kind of rationality that dominates Western thinking. We think of worth as an absolute quantity. If we’re going for a run, what matters to us is the time in which we complete it. He thinks of it as a relative quantity. It doesn’t matter how long he takes, as long as he takes less time than anyone else.  Another way of putting it is that he doesn’t care so much about being rich as about being first. 

This means we need to threaten to do more to him than he has to threaten to do to us to force a change in behaviour. We would abandon a course of action if it left us worse off than we are at the moment. He would still choose to take the hit, as long as the hit we suffered was heavier. This creates a well known paradox: to prevent his escalation we not only need to be able to match his escalation, but need to convince him there’s a realistic possibility that we could escalate further.

Because we have projected our own psychology onto him, our apparently responsible statements – that we won’t send troops in or establish a no-fly zone, and so on – embolden Putin rather than reassuring him of our intentions.

We need instead to re-establish our credibility.  A first step is a return to some rhetorical ambiguity: we need to signal that measures which would amount to war, such as a no-fly zone or the deployment of combat forces in Ukraine should now be under consideration.  He, not we, needs then to consider whether that war would be worth fighting.  

Second, we should take steps to show that even if a no-fly-zone or ground troops are only possibilities, we will strengthen our support for Ukraine. Yesterday’s announcement that Soviet-design anti-aircraft missiles, which Ukraine can operate immediately, will be sent in is an important first step.

But the main danger to Ukrainian cities and civilians is from artillery, not aircraft.  Ground attack drones, “loitering munitions” (very small drones) and radars to detect where artillery is fired from will be of greatest use.  But if Russia is to be deterred from escalating, it needs to understand that we, too, are willing to take some risk.

When the Soviet Union cut off Berlin, the United States, Britain and France responded with the Berlin airlift. These days it is Mariupol that is besieged, and its civilian population the subject of Aleppo-style shelling. As well as providing Ukraine the weapons to destroy that artillery, could we not consider an escorted airlift of air-dropped humanitarian supplies into the city? Russia could try and engage the planes escorting the aid, but would they really shoot at British, French or American aircraft?

A Mariupol airlift would not be without risk, but it’s less risky than a Russian victory.