We’ve all heard much talk of whether or not the U.S. should establish a ‘no-fly zone’ over Ukraine to protect the country from attack from Russian planes. Representative Adam Kinzinger was among the first to call for a limited no-fly zone and since then, others have jumped on the bandwagon. Even Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy has asked NATO to establish such a no-fly zone. But is it really a good idea? I’ve read the pros and cons and I think Nicholas Kristof sums it up best in his latest newsletter …
Here’s Why I’m Against a No-Fly Zone
It increases the risk of a Russian-American war, even of a nuclear exchange. That doesn’t seem worth it.
Nicholas Kristof, March 10
Almost nothing would be as satisfying right now as shooting down a Russian Mig that was bombing a Ukrainian apartment block or hospital. So it’s understandable that there are growing calls for the United States to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
The Russian bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Wednesday is just the latest war crime of this nature, and there may be many more. In Chechnya and Syria, Russia repeatedly bombed hospitals and clinics, reflecting a doctrine that emphasizes terrorizing civilian populations and forcing them to flee.
Ukrainian leaders are pleading for the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone, and Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi supports the idea. (Senator Rick Scott of Florida goes further and says that it’s worth considering dispatching U.S. ground troops to Ukraine.)
I’ve often argued for no-fly zones in other regions, from Darfur to Libya, so you might thing I’d be in favor this time as well. There’s no question that Russia is using its air power to commit mass atrocities.
But I’m against the calls for a no-fly zone in Ukraine, and I think President Biden is right to resist. The big difference from Darfur isn’t a principled one but pragmatic: In this case, a no-fly zone could escalate into a war between two superpowers.
Let’s understand that a no-fly zone is not some neat and bloodless intervention. It means that we shoot Russian planes out of the air, and our planes are also at risk of being shot down. To protect our planes, we would begin by striking Russian anti-aircraft positions, killing Russians. In other words, the first step of a no-fly zone is going to war with Russia.
This would be an undeclared war of uncertain legality. There is an enormous difference between supplying lethal weaponry to Ukraine and directly bombing Russian anti-aircraft batteries or shooting down Russian aircraft.
Vladimir Putin’s instinct has often been to double down. So what if he reacts to America downing a Mig by lobbing a few missiles at U.S. bases in Europe? Do we then fire missiles at Moscow? Where does this end?
I already think there is a small but non-zero risk of nuclear weapons being used (most likely tactical nuclear weapons, not strategic ones) as a result of the Ukraine crisis. If the U.S. and Russia are shooting down each other’s aircraft and firing mortars at each other’s bases, the risks go up enormously.
The risks of a no-fly zone also have to be weighed against the benefits. A no-fly zone, if successful and if it did not lead to World War III, could prevent Russia from establishing air superiority over Ukraine. That would be important. But it would not be likely to fundamentally change the outcome of the war, and Putin would still be able to blow up hospitals with his ground-based mortars, missiles and RPGs.
The blunt reality is that the main way Putin turns cities to rubble is ground artillery, not bombers. Artillery is a crucial element of Putin’s firepower and military doctrine, but do we really want to propose that we also take out Russian artillery positions?
Resisting a no-fly zone does not mean doing nothing. We can and should do everything we can to stand against Russia as it bombs a maternity hospital.
We can take other steps, particularly the transfer of more weaponry to Ukraine’s resistance, more intelligence sharing about specific targets for Ukraine to take out, more economic pressure on Russia and on oligarchs, and more effort to transfer Migs from Poland or other countries to Ukraine. All that will help Ukraine and bog Russia down while reducing the risk of triggering a larger war.
But a no-fly zone is different.
A no-fly zone is a useful tool that can often advance humanitarian objectives. But in this case, Putin would still have artillery and other tools to commit war crimes, and a no-fly zone would increase the risk of an American-Russian war, even of a nuclear exchange, with incomparably greater casualties than anything plausible in Ukraine alone. On this I reluctantly agree with Biden: That does not seem worth it.