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The case against a Ukrainian ‘no-fly zone’

If you want peace, do not prepare for nuclear war

Enforcing a no-fly zone over the skies of Ukraine would be the singularly most idiotic action that NATO could undertake in this moment. I woke up one morning recently to see “liberal” journalists coming out gaspingly in favour of this idea. For those drunk on the image of  the United States as a benevolent “world police”, a no-fly zone is just some sort of mutual diplomatic agreement where you just inform everyone that sorry, no planes are allowed here today. This is entirely incorrect – you have to shoot the planes down! 

The notion that the West would be even considering a no-fly zone would constitute escalation, most likely eliciting some form of Russian response, perhaps in the form of a ramping up of artillery strikes or, everyone’s favourite, a declaration of greater nuclear readiness. Then, the actual act of targeting and destroying Russian jets which violate this zone would (and I do not know why I have to explain this) be an act of war. Furthermore, even if the Russians did abide by this decree, there would still be Russia’s anti-aircraft systems, of which they have many in and around Ukraine, to deal with. It would be necessary to eliminate these systems for any level of air superiority, and what would striking targets in Russia, or Russian controlled territory mean? Say it with me folks – war! War between nuclear powers!

Those who clamour for a more aggressive and militaristic response towards Russia do not see this invasion as the product of any history. Putin’s actions are, of course, completely hellish and the invasion is beyond reprehensible. But fundamentally it is not as if this action was unpredictable based on what we have witnessed of Russia in the post-Soviet era. These journalists-cum-war hawks have unconsciously subscribed to the “great man theory” of history. They instead see the invasion as being due, and only being due, to the nefarious personality of Putin.

However, Putin is not undertaking this course of action because he is simply an evil madman. It was made clear a long time ago in the response to the 2008 NATO summit that the future admission of Georgia and Ukraine “would be taken in Russia as a direct threat to the security of our country”. It may seem controversial to say this but Putin is a rational actor. Like any other great power in the world, Russia has strategic interests and will protect themselves if they feel threatened. We can discuss the problems with these interests and, more broadly, the problems with a multipolar world but we are either foolish or naïve to think that poking a bear with a stick would lead to any other outcome. A bear which repeatedly warned against being poked with said stick no less.

The reason that this understanding of Putin needs to be kept in mind is because if we really are to believe that he is an evil lunatic, where does the West really draw the line? If we do believe he is ready to recreate the Russian Empire, shouldn’t we rally the troops and dust off the missiles? It is principally this line of thinking that has led to nothing but escalation. Take, as an example, when Liz Truss declared that Putin “must be stopped if we do not want to see a greater conflict with NATO”. A ridiculous comment – how do you propose stopping him, Liz? Perhaps with NATO? It was no surprise then that this comment was singled out by the Kremlin as being the reason for which the Russian nuclear deterrent force was placed on “high alert”. 

In the blogosphere the rhetoric has become even more insane. It was the epicentre of lunacy located in tweets by journalist Dan Hodges that initially motivated me to write this article. In a splatter of tweets from March 1st, he wrote that opposition to a no-fly zone is identical to the appeasement of Hitler at Munich, going on to say that we should shoot down Russian aircraft if they violated a hypothetical zone. He seemingly forgot about the pretty pivotal importance of intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles.

These voices say nothing about the underlying causes of the invasion. They ratchet up the tension because they cannot see any other solutions except for those based on mischaracterisations. I do not write any of this to justify the acts of Russia, but to bring attention to the fact that a simplistic view of the situation is not conducive to peace. The promotion of a no-fly zone is, as a response, inseparable from the false idea that we are now, or should be, in an all-or-nothing crusade against evil.  I fear that if this rhetoric does not abate then the worst is yet to come.

Image courtesy of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense via Flickr