We Need to Talk About a No-Fly Zone
Monday Notes
We Need to Talk About a No-Fly Zone
It may still be a bad idea but there’s no way to know for sure unless we discuss specifics.
Published on: Mar 14, 2022  |  

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Observing the debate over the Ukraine War and what do about it, one thing has confused me above all else. For all the talk about no-fly zones, most of the talk has been about why no-fly zones are bad and dangerous—with the implication that perhaps even discussing the idea publicly and treating it as something that could be done is its own sort of escalation.

This instinct can lead to what the political scientists Amy Nelson and Alexander Montgomery have called escalatory aversion, defined as "a bias in which careful weighing of multiple risks has been abandoned in favor of avoidance of a single worst-case outcome." In effect, this escalatory aversion has led the United States to make preemptive concessions to Vladimir Putin, ceding the initiative to him in the process. The U.S. and NATO have made themselves hostages to Russian threats. We have rendered ourselves so afraid of provoking Putin, without asking whether Putin himself is—or should be—afraid of provoking the United States. There is a fundamental imbalance in how we talk about this.

For instance, as Nelson and Montgomery note, why did Biden, before Russia even invaded, rule out not only sending troops to Ukraine to fight Russian forces—which was understandable—but also sending troops to evacuate American citizens? Why telegraph to Russia what we're willing to do or not do before the war even started? In contrast, the Russians appear not to have ruled out anything, including the destruction of the planet.

To consider another example, why did Biden feel a need to tweet the following on March 11, just as the Russian military was intensifying its bombardment and leveling entire city blocks?

I want to be clear: We will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full might of a united and galvanized NATO. But we will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. A direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III. And something we must strive to prevent.

Again, a reasonable thought to have in one's head, but why state it outright on Twitter? Biden's comment isn't even specifically about a no-fly zone; it's more generally pitched as any "direct confrontation" between NATO and Russia, coupled with the unsupported assumption that any such confrontation would be tantamount to World War III.

Here, Biden puts all the onus on the United States for staying back and not doing anything that might provoke Russia, while essentially sending the message that Putin can act with impunity in Ukraine. This conveys to Putin that no matter what he does, as long as he keeps it contained within Ukraine, NATO will not "directly confront" Russia. Is it also Putin who gets to decide what constitutes such a "confrontation"? What about measures well short of a no-fly zone, such as sending Ukraine ground-based close-in weapons systems (CIWS), providing its fighters with advanced mobile anti-aircraft kit, or deploying the Patriot surface-to-air missile system?

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At the very least, the future prospect of a no-fly zone should be debated, just like all military options should be discussed in a free and open democracy, with a careful assessment of risks and feasibility. There's nothing about a no-fly zone that is inherently beyond the pale. It is worth taking seriously, even if one rejects it after careful consideration. That's what we've tried to do here at Wisdom of Crowds, including in this recent episode where Damir and I went back and forth on the merits. Last week, Damir wrote what may be the most comprehensive case against a no-fly zone, one that I found persuasive but not entirely so.

My main concern is that Damir's escalatory fears hinge on what may be an unfounded, or at least speculative, premise. He writes:

Once the United States starts losing planes over Ukraine, for example, the domestic pressure to get revenge will become orders of magnitude greater than it already is. Demands for punitive actions against Russian ground forces will become shriller, with calls to bomb troops in Ukraine as well as bases in Belarus or Russia…Air power has its limits, however. Properly punishing Russian forces will at some point require deploying ground troops of our own.

Yes, the United States could very well lose some number of planes in enforcing a no-fly zone. But would this necessarily trigger a punitive escalation leading to the deployment of ground troops? Built into Damir's essay is an assumption about the martial nature of democracies—that once the instinct for revenge is unleashed, democratically-elected leaders become hostages to popular sentiment. But I have trouble imagining widespread American support for ground troops, especially considering that voters would presumably be aware of the risk of tactical nukes being used against American soldiers (which could then more easily spiral into total nuclear confrontation).

The broader point, however, is that U.S. officials have agency. At each step of the escalatory latter—or "slide" as it were—they can make decisions about what to do or not do. Escalation isn't automatic. It depends on individual and collective choices.

In any case, it is difficult for me to fully assess Damir's argument against a no-fly zone because very few analysts, if any, have written a comprehensive case for one, including so-called limited or humanitarian no-fly zones.

So far, I've seen declarations and statements of support for options that focus on protecting humanitarian corridors, which I'm sympathetic to in principle, but relatively little explaining how these would be implemented in practice or how the United States would react at different points in a potential escalatory ladder. For example, a group of 27 former senior officials and analysts—including former NATO supreme allied commander Philip Breedlove, former U.S. ambassador to Poland Daniel Fried, and former deputy assistant secretary of defense Ian Brzezinski—signed an open letter in support of a "limited" no-fly zone:

We, the undersigned, urge the Biden administration, together with NATO allies, to impose a limited no-fly zone over Ukraine starting with protection for humanitarian corridors that were agreed upon in talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials on Thursday. NATO leaders should convey to Russian officials that they do not seek direct confrontation with Russian forces, but they must also make clear that they will not countenance Russian attacks on civilian areas.

That's about all the detail there is. Of course, it's not the point of an open letter to go into operational details, which would presumably create disagreements among the signatories. Open letters are generally moral exhortations, calls to action, and statements of intent, and that's precisely what this one is.

A short piece by Olena Tregub for the Center for European Policy Analysis goes a bit further and discusses non-NATO options for imposing a partial no-fly zone on "clearly defined areas" again with a focus on "protecting civilian areas and critical infrastructure for humanitarian purposes." A discussion around where these clearly defined areas would be and how to avoid a full-blown shooting war with Russia is warranted. But for there to be a vigorous and informed debate—which I believe is important and necessary—those who support a limited no-fly zone would be well-served to lay out their case at length. The time for that is presumably now.