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As the free and sovereign nation of Ukraine battles the invading second most powerful army in the world, the West continues to evade its responsibility. Dictator Vladimir Putin has launched his captive nation into a war against the international democratic order. To believe that Russia’s imperial quest will stop at Ukraine’s borders is an exercise of supreme naivety. The West is in denial if it believes it is not currently under attack. Here are some reasons why implementing a no-fly zone of some sort over Ukraine makes sense.
Call it World War III or IV (if one counts the Cold War as a world war), the truth is that aggression from pillars of evil has been in a constant war against the free world. One example is communist China’s asymmetrical warfare since 1978. Another has been the installation of the Putin regime in 2000. It launched another front against free societies, a post-Soviet version. Authoritarian Russia took a mixed combat approach that has been, both, asymmetrical (cyber-attacks, espionage, economic, foreign interference) and traditional (Chechnya, Moldavia, Syria, Georgia, and Ukraine). The besieging of Ukraine, its heroic resistance, and the ensuing genocide have given the West a wake-up call.
The Russo-Ukrainian War, which belligerently began in 2014, must be won by the forces of freedom. In other words, it is paramount that Ukraine does not fall. As has been the case with most wars throughout history, it is never just about two contenders. The West must be determined to roll back Russian aggression. This can only be done by making it steadfastly clear that Russia’s control over Ukraine will not be tolerated. Ironically, the side which has been losing the war is the one calling the shots. Through Putin’s nuclear blackmail and the West’s sheer cowardice, the U.S., EU, and NATO have grown to have a fear of fear itself, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt once remarked.
The fact that NATO is considerably more powerful than Russia goes unnoticed in Brussels. Expressed concerns of “escalation” and “provocation” have become the Biden administration’s most common buzzwords. This genuflecting approach to resolving poignant international issues only serves freedom’s enemies. The West is afraid that “crazy” Putin will press the nuclear finger if the West acts as it should and not according to his will. History, again, appears to have gone unlearned or is being ignored.
The post-WWII planet lived with two (later more) diametrically opposed superpowers possessing nuclear weapons. The most successful deterrent against an Armageddon was the notion of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The understanding that a nuclear war would be catastrophic for all parties involved, prompted prudence and avoided a catastrophe. Neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. ever renounced their willingness to use them. That is what assured its non-use. The first massive mistake the West has made since Putin invaded Ukraine is letting him have the monopoly of the nuclear verbiage. The rhetorical principle of MAD was violated by the U.S. and NATO. Words matter.
The unwillingness to formulate, early on, an NFZ over Ukrainian skies, has signaled to the aggressor the West’s reluctance to defend the sovereignty of a strategic member of the democratic community. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the free world will simply “get over” the Putin regime’s invasion of Ukraine, he was reacting in adversarial coherence to the American and European reaction. The rationale opposing an NFZ is flawed.
Tobias Ellwood, a senior British Conservative MP who chairs the defense select committee, correctly critiqued his country’s opposition to a Ukrainian NFZ as “misleading, simplistic and indeed defeatist to suggest engaging in a no-fly zone over Ukraine would automatically lead to a war, even nuclear conflict with Russia.” Ellwood wisely added that the West should have “more confidence in managing these Cold War high-stakes scenarios.” This is spot on.
The Biden administration has expressed a similar pattern of logic. WH Press Secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly made the claim that an NFZ “would essentially mean the U.S. military would be shooting down planes, Russian planes.” This fatalistic scenario adheres more to a political policy choice, in this case of backing down against Russian aggression, rather than actual military options. It is not sketched in stone that the Ukrainians themselves cannot be the material authors of, effectively, demilitarizing zones of the Ukrainian sky. With the proper military and technological hardware from the U.S. and NATO, Ukraine could disincentivize Putin’s missiles and planes from flying over their country for purposes of war and genocide.
The idea of building a strategic missile defense shield over Europe, a project started in 2007 that was negligently scrapped in 2009 by Barack Obama in his “reset” appeasement rapprochement with the Russian dictator, was intended for such scenarios. Deterrence would have been served by such a system. Deterrence to the worst of war’s ravages can still be avoided if the West man’s up and decides it will not bear idly the execution of genocide and war crimes. Ukrainians can logistically carry out an NFZ mandate. This can be done from their territory or, if need be, from NATO or American bases. Belarusian territory has been enabling Putin’s aggression from the beginning. Ukraine’s allies must act in kind.
A group of 27 American foreign policy experts has penned an open letter calling for a limited NFZ. The list of weighty personalities includes Paula Dobriansky (former undersecretary of State for global affairs), Alexander Vershbow (former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and Russia), Ian Brzezinski (former deputy assistant secretary of defense), and Kurt Volker (former U.S. Ambassador to NATO). In the public missive, they state that “What we seek is the deployment of American and NATO aircraft not in search of confrontation with Russia but to avert and deter Russian bombardment that would result in massive loss of Ukrainian lives.”
General Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and another signatory of the cited open letter to the Biden administration, noted that an NFZ could be conducted without the “bellicose rules of engagement.” The former NATO top chief added: “How many casualties does it take before we take a different approach to this war?” The former commander of the Canadian military, General Rick Hillier, assessed the risk of not implementing an NFZ in Ukraine. “I know that NATO is a defensive organization, but you don’t start defense at your front door,” he said. Even former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has acknowledged that “we ought to at least have that (NFZ) as a potential option.”
Engaging in war successfully requires that all alternatives be on the table. Psychological warfare is a seminal piece in the military arsenal. When the Free World publicly announces that they will refrain from using certain weapons or refuse to apply strategies like an NFZ, they are following a loser’s course. The sure path to defeat should not be accepted. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman called it well when he said, “There is no such thing as a risk-free option, at this point. There are only calibrated- and risk-informed options”. Ukraine is democracy’s battlefront today.
Julio M Shiling, political scientist, writer, director of Patria de Martí and The Cuban American Voice, lecturer and media commentator. A native of Cuba, he currently lives in the United States. Twitter: @JulioMShiling // Julio es politólogo, escritor, director de Patria de Martí y The Cuban American Voice. Conferenciante y comentarista en los medios. Natural de Cuba, vive actualmente en EE UU.