Talking Points

A no-fly zone is a bad idea that just won't go away

The U.S. shouldn't try to establish a "no-fly zone" over Ukraine. It's a terrible idea that would draw us directly into war with Russia, which is something nobody should want to happen.

For some reason, though, the idea just won't go away.

Politico reported Tuesday morning that 27 "foreign policy heavyweights" have written a new letter calling for a different kind of no-fly zone in Ukraine — one oriented more toward humanitarian concerns and not so much toward repelling Russia's invasion forces. "It is time for the United States and NATO to step up their help for Ukrainians before more innocent civilians fall victim to Putin's murderous madness," the group wrote.

That sounds almost reasonable and right, until you realize — as Politico notes — that even that limited intervention would still probably end in a clash between U.S. and Russian forces. 

Similarly, Fox News' Jacqui Heinrich reported on Monday that "some members of Congress are beginning to advocate for a non-kinetic no-fly zone — something to the effect of using electromagnetic pulse, sonar, and cyber to keep Russian jets on the ground so they can never take off." That's probably silly, idle fantasizing — sonar? — but it suggests a few hawkish members of the U.S. government are still itching to get America more deeply, if indirectly, embedded in the fight. 

What both ideas share with each other (and with former President Trump's suggestion of attacking Russian forces using U.S. planes painted with Chinese flags) is an apparent desire to repel the invasion without quite taking responsibility for that act. To be fair, that's already something that's happening: Ukrainians are using American-provided anti-tank missiles to wreak havoc on the invaders. Getting directly involved with the use of American pilots and troops, though, is something different. Giving a humanitarian gloss to U.S. war-making wouldn't suddenly make it not war-making; neither would using "non-kinetic" means to ground the Russian air force. Vladimir Putin would regard that as an act of war, as would Americans if the Russians used such means against us.

At some level, the people making the proposals recognize this. One of the letter signers, former NATO commander Philip Breedlove, acknowledged last week to NPR that a no-fly zone is a "big step": "A no-fly zone, if it is truly a military no-fly zone, is essentially an act of war because that means you are willing to enforce it, meaning those who violate it you would shoot at." He wants to do it anyway. 

It's awful to feel powerless in the face of the gut-wrenching scenes coming out of Ukraine. But provoking a clash between Americans and Russians unacceptably raises the odds of a much greater catastrophe. Establishing a no-fly zone is still a bad idea, no matter what cute twist is used to try to make it otherwise.