Shortly after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, the government in Kyiv floated the idea of a no-fly zone to help protect civilians and soldiers. The West gave a swift and decisive refusal: threatening to shoot down Russian planes could set off World War III.
And yet, three weeks into the war, the no-fly zone proposal just won’t die. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky begs for air support almost daily. In protests and social media posts, millions of ordinary people around the world ask NATO to #closethesky.
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Here in America, a nationwide poll showed that 74% of Americans support a no-fly zone. And earlier this month, 27 foreign policy experts published an open letter requesting a limited no-fly zone over humanitarian corridors.
If a no-fly zone is so obviously impractical, why are we still talking about it? The answer — which is conspicuously missing from mainstream Western discourse — lays bare the fundamental problem in the US response to the war.
A False Dichotomy
Politicians and the media offer a single simplistic argument against protecting Ukraine’s airspace: Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Almost every official statement, article and op-ed can be summarized in one sentence: A no-fly zone would start World War III.
But here’s the part no one says out loud: What happens if the West doesn’t institute a no-fly zone? Will such a move keep us safe from nuclear Armageddon? Can the US manage to stay out of this war and out of Russia’s crosshairs?
Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric — and his actions — offer a clear answer. The US can avoid direct confrontation but at a price: handing the Russian leader an absolute, total victory. In Ukraine, of course, but also in Moldova and Georgia and perhaps the Baltics, and who knows where else? And, of course, carte blanche to commit whatever atrocities he’d like worldwide (à la Syria).
If Putin cannot win, he will lash out against enemies real and imagined. At that point, it won’t matter whether those enemies have instituted a no-fly zone. Putin has already likened sanctions and weapons deliveries to declarations of war on Russia, creating a ready excuse for retaliation. He’s set up a false narrative about Ukraine building a nuclear bomb, building a rationale to use his own nuclear weapons.
The real question before the US government isn’t whether to institute a no-fly zone. It’s whether America is ready to help Ukraine win or prefers to stand by and watch the rise of a new Russian empire.
If not, we must stand up to Putin now. There are multiple viable policy options for doing so. One is arranging a no-fly zone administered by the United Nations rather than NATO. Another is sending Ukraine decommissioned Western fighter jets and several dozen volunteer air force vets who would be granted Ukrainian citizenship. Yet another would be to send only jets — Ukrainian fighter pilots have confirmed that they can, in fact, learn to fly Western jets in just a few days.
The specific mechanism matters less than the political will — the decision to send Putin a clear message that the US will not let him take Ukraine, backed up by sufficient military support. This option is not risk-free. But it’s impossible for Ukraine to prevail without angering Putin.
Is the risk worth it? Ukrainians believe so because they see something most Americans haven’t yet figured out: World War III has already started. Putin’s grand ambitions are reminiscent of a certain German dictator 80 years before him, as is the US strategy of appeasement. In the end, US involvement is inevitable, so why not be strategic and proactive rather than reacting years later when the human and economic costs of Putin’s empire-building are too high to be ignored?
Of course, the US government may disagree with this perspective and opt for appeasement 2.0. Maybe this time around, the unstable dictator will be more reasonable?
If this is the case, and the US government is not ready to stand up to Putin, it’s essential to make it clear that Zelensky is on his own. If we cannot make a commitment to let Ukrainians win, we should let them lose. Ukraine’s government deserves an honest understanding of what it can and can’t expect from the US so it can make decisions accordingly.
The Worst of Both Worlds
So far, American politicians have spurned both of these options. Instead, they’re pursuing an immoral, dangerous fantasy, waiting for someone to stop Putin without America getting its hands dirty. To this end, they offer half-measures that drag out the conflict and cost thousands of lives. They wear blue and yellow, they send aid and enact sanctions, but they consciously steer clear of any support that could lead to a Ukrainian victory.
This brings us back to the absurd situation we started with: ongoing calls for an impossible no-fly zone, which we can now see are absolutely logical. Let’s review.
America: Ukraine, we support you in your brave fight for freedom!
Ukrainians and their friends abroad: Great! So, the one thing we need is support with our airspace.
America: No can do. But believe us — we’re on your side here and we’re ready to help!
Ukrainians: Thank you. We’re dying here and we can’t win without air support.
America: Once again, no. But we stand with you.
This hypocrisy goes well beyond the debate over the no-fly zone. For instance, on March 6, Secretary Blinken gave the green light for Poland to donate its fighter jets to Ukraine. When Poland agreed to cede the jets to the US for immediate transfer to the Ukrainian army, American officials backpedaled in a truly impressive display of doublespeak.
Ukraine cannot win this war without the US taking tangible steps to protect Ukrainian airspace. Pretending otherwise and willfully extending the bloodshed with partial measures is the worst possible option for the United States.
The US government doesn’t owe Ukraine support. But it does owe Ukraine an immediate end to the falsehoods and the empty words — a bullshit ceasefire, if you will. An admission that, no matter how many civilian deaths, no matter what kind of banned weapons Russia uses or how many war crimes it commits, no matter if Russia drops a nuclear bomb on Kyiv, the US will not step in.
Until then, Russia pushes new boundaries every day with impunity, Ukraine holds out hope for help that will never come and Joe Biden wavers while children die.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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