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Home/Articles/At Least They’re Saying No To No-Fly Zones

At Least They’re Saying No To No-Fly Zones

A U.S.-imposed no-fly zone over Ukraine would likely put us on the brink of nuclear war.

In the early hours of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, David French declared “We’re All Ukrainians Now.” His fellow right-liberal echoed the sentiment, apparently unaware of the implication: If we really are all Ukrainians in the current moment, then the United States ought to treat the Russian invasion like an invasion of the American homeland and afford the Ukrainians every possible protection, including boots on the ground. It is a silly idea, and it seems its champions are starting to realize that, too. By their own admission, placing a no-fly zone over Ukraine—as U.S., NATO, and Ukrainian officials have proposed—would likely lead to war. A war that could go nuclear. After helping whip up an online frenzy, French and his ilk are quietly walking it back.

Two days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Rep. Adam Kinzinger tweeted that “the fate of #Ukraine is being decided tonight, but also the fate of the west.” Rather than just coming out and saying the U.S. needed boots on the ground in Kiev, Kinzinger suggested a U.S. impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. “History teaches that taking a stand is inevitable and gets more costly with time,” Kinzinger said in a subsequent tweet. “We own the skies, Russia cannot hold a candle to our Air power.  Do this.  Putin is too dangerous to hope he is satisfied with ‘just Ukraine.’”

Kinzinger was far from the only member of Congress to suggest a no-fly zone would be a good idea. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) told the Huffington Post on Feb. 28 that “a strong coalition of like-minded nations should step in and seriously consider [a no-fly zone].”

“Tens of thousands of women and children fleeing from Kyiv west have created a humanitarian situation that the international community needs to step in and be involved in,” Wicker added.

After Wicker, who is likely to fill Sen. Jim Inhofe’s (R-Oklahoma) spot as the leading Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, endorsed a no-fly zone, a bipartisan group of Senators, such as Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), came out against the idea. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) also offered his sharp disproval. “People have to understand what that means. That means a willingness to shoot down Russian planes. And that would mean World War III,” Rubio reportedly said.

Nevertheless, the idea of a no-fly zone gained serious traction. Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who came under investigation for high treason in December, appeared on Sky News and advocated for a NATO-imposed no-fly zone. Other Ukrainian politicians, such as Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko, also came out in favor.

As did retired four-star U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the former NATO supreme allied commander Europe from 2013 to 2016. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Breedlove said, “I am actually a proponent of [a no-fly zone],” though he doesn’t believe it will happen. Unlike Kinzinger, Breedlove made no such attempt to obfuscate his true desire: all-out war with Russia that could go nuclear over the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

As Breedlove said:

The reality of a no-fly zone is, it is an act of war. There are a lot of people who don’t understand no-fly zones. You don’t just say, “That’s a no-fly zone.” You have to enforce a no-fly zone, which means you have to be willing to use force against those who break the no-fly zone. The second thing, which nobody understands, is if you put a no-fly zone in the eastern part of Ukraine, for instance, and we’re going to fly coalition or NATO aircraft into that no-fly zone, then we have to take out all the weapons that can fire into our no-fly zone and cause harm to our aircraft. So that means bombing enemy radars and missile systems on the other side of the border. And you know what that means, right? That is tantamount to war. So if we’re going to declare a no-fly zone, we have to take down the enemy’s capability to fire into and affect our no-fly zone.

Here, Breedlove is absolutely correct, which is what makes the possibility of a no-fly zone so terrifying. No-fly zones are largely an instrument of war in the post-Cold War era. Though the Soviets and the mid-century U.S. had air capabilities that could lend themselves to the strategy of commandeering an area’s air space to achieve stated missions on the ground, both poles in the Cold War opted against using no-fly zones precisely because it heightened the risk of nuclear confrontation.

Thankfully, the Biden administration has said it is not considering a no-fly zone, but if U.S. and NATO allies went forward with a one in the future, then all bets are off, given Putin has already placed Russian nuclear forces on high alert. We would be the closest we’ve been to nuclear confrontation with Russia since 1962—more than thirty years removed from the collapse of the USSR. They trulyneverlearn.

The first proper no-fly zone was instituted by the U.S. and coalition nations in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991. The two no-fly zones, named Operation Northern Watch and Operation Southern Watch sought to prevent Saddam Hussein from using the Iraqi air force from targeting Kurds or Shiites and hold Iraq to the terms of the peace negotiations. Similar strategies were implemented in Bosnia and Libya. Each of these no-fly zones were predicated on complete and absolute air superiority against relatively minor powers that could not meaningfully escalate.

While Russia’s military is not the behemoth it was during the Soviet Union, it still boasts the second-largest air force in the world, it still has nuclear weapons, and with its advance into Ukraine, has been able to position anti-air assets that would almost guarantee an American or allied nations’ pilot would lose their lives enforcing it. Proponents of a no-fly zone suggest feeding an airman or two to Russian artillery is a worthy sacrifice to obtain the pretext for full-scale intervention they crave.

That recklessness is unconscionable, but it hasn’t been without encouragement from French’s cohort, which has all of a sudden realized beating the war drums may actually lead to war. After Wicker endorsed a no-fly zone, French tweeted, “I disagree. Sanction Russia, seize oligarch assets, arm Ukraine. Do all those things, yes, but a no-fly zone would involve us directly in the conflict. It would not be like implementing a no-fly zone over Kurdistan. It could plunge us into a catastrophic war.” But French’s condemnation came just two days after tweeting, “Russia is not in our league. Their relative strength in Europe has always been much more based on the absence of substantial American and allied forces than any real notion of qualitative Russian superiority,” in response to a tweet about Russia establishing air supremacy in Ukraine. Beyond sanctions, he has also advocated for more troops in Eastern European NATO countries and supplying the Ukrainians with more weapons, which will likely only maximize the carnage. It’s not as far of a leap from French to Kinzinger as French would like people to believe.

Jonah Goldberg tweeted, “‘I don’t want to go to war with Russia, I just want a no-fly zone over Ukraine’ Twitter is maddening.” You’re telling me. Bill Kristol, never one to be out done when it comes to advocating for war, said that rather than a no-fly zone, the U.S. should move forward with “covert and cyber capabilities that would not be directly and overtly confrontational.” But a cyber attack on Russia would certainly constitute an act of war. Both White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged that if Russia launched a cyber attack, it would be an act of war that could trigger NATO’s Article 5 commitments. Covert operations, placing unmarked troops and assets on the ground, if discovered, could be just as bad, if not worse, than a no-fly zone.

For now, the Biden administration has ruled out placing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. On Monday, Psaki told MSNBC that a no-fly zone “would essentially mean the US military would be shooting down planes, Russian planes.”

“That is definitely escalatory, that would potentially put us in a place where we are in a military conflict with Russia. That is not something [President Joe Biden] wants to do,” Psaki added. Broken clocks, etcetera. But, Psaki’s denial doesn’t inspire much confidence given the inconsistencies that have plagued this administration’s approach to the Ukraine conflict since the beginning.

about the author

Bradley Devlin is a Staff Reporter for The American Conservative. Previously, he was an Analysis Reporter for the Daily Caller, and has been published in the Daily Wire and the Daily Signal, among other publications that don't include the word "Daily." He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Political Economy. You can follow Bradley on Twitter @bradleydevlin.

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