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Michael Pooler is a veteran of the Afghan war and retired from the Maine Army National Guard as a colonel in 2019. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College and currently a graduate student in the Policy, Planning and Management program at the Muskie School at the University of Southern Maine.
Implementing a no-fly zone over Ukraine may make people feel like they are supporting and protecting Ukrainians from attacks by Russian aircraft, but it would only make this situation worse. By declaring a no-fly zone, the U.S. and its European allies who make up NATO are telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that all are prepared to kill Russian service members.
To enforce a country wide no-fly zone, NATO pilots will need to shoot down Russian pilots. Even with a limited, well-defined, and communicated no-fly zone, whose purpose is strictly humanitarian to protect civilians, Putin must believe NATO will shoot down his aircraft and so far, he has severely miscalculated much.
A properly implemented no-fly zone requires that NATO pilots be protected, which means NATO must destroy Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries and other anti-aircraft weapons, either inside Ukraine or along the Ukrainian border inside Belarus or Russia itself. Some say these additional protective measures are not needed because they will further escalate the war. However, political leaders must properly support troops they direct into harm’s way. Also, the vast majority of destruction occurs by Russian artillery and ground-based rocket fire into cities, which a no-fly zone will not stop.
Based on how Putin wages war, there is no reason to believe he would honor any type of no-fly zone over Ukraine. He will test NATO’s resolve by flying aircraft to be shot down and retaliate when NATO kills Russians.
Some believe Putin does not want a war with NATO and NATO needs to confront Putin sooner or later. Since Ukraine currently has a viable government and a fighting military, and the Russian military has demonstrated they are not as good as NATO thought, now may be a good time to confront him. Then what happens?
When NATO countries fly combat missions into Ukraine, those NATO bases become legitimate military targets for Russia. If those who believe Putin does not want to confront NATO are incorrect, Putin will attack either conventionally and with cyber warfare, by using chemical or biological weapons, or small tactical nuclear weapons.
Once NATO starts to kill Russians, either in the air or on the ground, Putin can legitimately tell his people he is defending Russians from NATO and potentially divide NATO from those nations in the United Nations that supported Ukraine. NATO membership requirements demand that when one NATO country is attacked, all other NATO members must defend it. While the US signed the NATO treaty decades ago, the US could go to war without any vote or debate by Congress, thus going to war with no political accountability. Also, if NATO defends Ukraine, they receive all the benefits of NATO membership without meeting NATO requirements for membership.
Both those who advocate for a no-fly zone and those who advocate for other measures to support Ukraine demonstrate a strong moral desire to limit civilian suffering. One potential solution is for the West to funnel aircraft and more sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles through non-NATO third parties like Sweden, Switzerland, or countries in the Middle East or Africa to Ukraine. This would allow Ukraine to conduct their own no-fly zone.
Stronger sanctions on Russia and worldwide pressure on China to pressure Putin not to expand the war and resolve the conflict would alleviate civilian suffering but will take time. A riskier action could be for non-NATO countries to conduct humanitarian airlifts, bringing in food and medical supplies and taking out civilians.
If the West has a moral obligation to defend Ukrainian civilians, do we not have a moral obligation to protect civilians around the world from incursions by stronger countries? If so, at what cost and where does it end?
There are no good options in war, just least bad options. A no-fly zone will only widen the devastation to other countries and, while it may make some feel better, is not the right solution.