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Why increasing talk of a no-fly zone over Ukraine is troubling

The policy would amount to a declaration of war on Russia and cause the odds of nuclear exchange to surge.
Image: A protestor wearing the colors of the Ukrainian flag looking up.
Members and supporters of the Ukrainian community at a protest in Times Square in New York City against the Russian invasion on March 5.Ed Jones / AFP via Getty Images file

The idea that NATO should create a no-fly zone over Ukraine is creeping into mainstream policy debate, and even some top Democrats say they’re contemplating it as a response to Russia’s invasion of the country.

Creating a no-fly zone would effectively amount to NATO entering a hot war with Russia — a massive, nuclear-armed power. That makes the slowly growing prominence of the idea a deeply troubling development. As brutal as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been, we must remain calm and avoid any policy that could make the conflict worse and potentially imperil the entire world.

Establishing a no-fly zone would entail NATO patrolling Ukrainian airspace, shooting down Russian aircraft that enter it and targeting Russian air defenses that could take out NATO aircraft. In the early days of the invasion, talk of a no-fly zone seemed like a fringe idea. After all, the entire premise of the Cold War was that large-scale direct conflict between two powerful nuclear-armed states was so existentially dangerous that it had to be avoided as much as possible, and the result was the U.S. and the Soviet Union clashed through proxy wars in other countries.

Alas, that moment of sobriety seems to have passed. Talk of no-fly zone seems to be growing louder.

As the Russian invasion has intensified, much of the White House press corps has been demanding the Biden administration explain why it won’t take more aggressive steps to intervene in the conflict, including setting up a no-fly zone. Earlier this month, a Washington Post politics newsletter described the no-fly zone possibility as the subject of “debate” and gave significant space to proponents arguing for one.

On Wednesday, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the U.S. to, among other things, create a no-fly zone over his country, Axios’ analysis asked, “Who would have expected ... Zelensky to seize the bully pulpit, calling on the U.S. to behave like a superpower?” The subtext was that an intervention through something like a no-fly zone is what it means to be a superpower.

But the U.S. made its mark as a superpower during the Cold War through a measured containment policy; by avoiding direct war, the U.S.’s decadeslong power struggle with the Soviet Union allowed the U.S. to avoid catastrophic nuclear exchange and destruction of its infrastructure or economy. (This is not to elide or excuse the devastating consequences of Cold War proxy wars for the Global South, but rather to point out that acting "like a superpower" does not mean escalating into direct military conflict with other great powers.)

Even more worrisome are recent statements from lawmakers in both parties. Republicans including Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania have called for a no-fly zone in general, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a foreign policy hawk if there ever was one, has called for one if Russia uses chemical weapons. As for Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said a no-fly zone should be on the table, and, most shockingly, after Zelenskyy’s address Wednesday, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York told Axios, "I wouldn't say [a no-fly zone] is off the table."

Fortunately, a no-fly zone has its vocal opponents and still appears to be a fringe opinion in Washington. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has a track record of neoconservative foreign policy positions, has opposed the idea and rightly said it would mean "World War III." Most significantly, President Joe Biden has remained coolheaded and steadfast in opposing policies that would result in the U.S. directly clashing with Russia.

To much of the public, a no-fly zone might sound moderate — a seemingly modest intervention with no boots on the ground. That might explain why the idea has significant public support.

But as my colleague Hayes Brown explained earlier this month, honest proponents of the policy accurately describe a no-fly zone as an act of war. Philip Breedlove, a retired U.S. Air Force general and former NATO supreme allied commander Europe, told Foreign Policy a few weeks ago that he supports one, but he was candid about the reality that establishing such a zone in eastern Ukraine means “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.”

Breedlove’s blunt assessment explains why, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp put it in a useful primer on the issue, you can’t implement a no-fly zone “without greatly heightening the risk of nuclear escalation.”

The U.S. has sent Ukraine security aid for years, including $1 billion in security assistance in the last week. It’s spearheading a globally unprecedented sanctions regime so isolating and punishing that North Korea and Iran look downright popular compared to Russia. The nature and scope of aid to Ukraine — including developing a more robust refugee policy — is the debate we should be having.

But electing to kick off another world war in the absence of Russia attacking NATO is an idea we’ve given too much attention already.