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Why a no-fly zone in Ukraine would be a catastrophically bad idea

From Moscow any no-fly zone would likely look like step one in a NATO campaign towards regime change.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appreciates the help that America and its allies have provided since Russia invaded his country Feb. 24, but he would prefer they take a more active role in defending Ukrainian forces.

Zelenskyy has urged President Joe Biden to declare a “no-fly zone” over “significant parts” of Ukraine, denying Russian aircraft the ability to operate. “This is the self-hypnosis of those who are weak, insecure inside, despite the fact they possess weapons many times stronger than we have,” he said Friday decrying the inaction so far.

Putin would certainly interpret a no-fly zone targeting Russian aircraft as the West placing a bull's-eye directly on his back.

The White House and NATO have dismissed Zelenskyy’s demands, but that hasn’t deterred advocates — including pundits, members of Congress and former defense officials — from endorsing such a move. On top of that, a Reuters-Ipsos poll released Friday found that 74 percent of Americans are in favor of NATO imposing Zelenskyy’s requested no-fly zone over Ukraine.

At first glance, that strong support makes sense. To many Americans, a no-fly zone probably sounds less dangerous than deploying American ground forces to Ukraine and better than doing nothing. Russian President Vladimir Putin, though, would certainly interpret a no-fly zone targeting Russian aircraft as the West placing a bull's-eye directly on his back, which makes it a maneuver that could place the entire world at risk.

The U.S. first imposed a no-fly zone in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War as a way to protect Iraqi civilians. During that decade and the next, a time period that coincided with America’s nearly unmatched dominance in the air, the tactic only grew in popularity. But dominance is what makes a no-fly zone effective. For it to succeed, there has to be enough airpower deployed to completely deny any adversary’s planes from taking off.

Philip Breedlove, a retired U.S. Air Force general and former NATO supreme allied commander Europe, went in-depth with Foreign Policy on Sunday to describe what a no-fly zone over Ukraine would require:

I am actually a proponent of it. But let me now tell you why it will probably not happen, because the reality of a no-fly zone is, it is an act of war. There are a lot of people who don't understand no-fly zones. You don't just say, 'That's a no fly zone.' You have to enforce a no-fly zone, which means you have to be willing to use force against those who break the no-fly zone. The second thing, which nobody understands, is if you put a no-fly zone in the eastern part of Ukraine, for instance, and we're going to fly coalition or NATO aircraft into that no-fly zone, then 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. So if we're going to declare a no-fly zone, we have to take down the enemy's capability to fire into and affect our no-fly zone. And few understand that.

The lack of understanding Breedlove lamented is certainly the case for the majority of the respondents to Reuters’ poll who opposed "conducting air strikes to support the Ukrainian army." While Breedlove still favors a no-fly zone despite his deep knowledge of those issues, he and other proponents seem to be discounting the likelihood that Moscow will see a no-fly zone as a first step toward regime change.

Putin was months away from ascending to the presidency when he watched his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, accede to NATO’s no-fly zone over Kosovo in 1999, despite Moscow considering Serbia an ally. While Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic was still in power when the 78-day bombing campaign ended, he was overthrown just over a year later after trying to rig elections in his favor.

Proponents seem to be discounting the likelihood that Moscow will see a no-fly zone as a first step toward regime change.

Ahead of Russia’s invasion, Masha Gessen, a writer for The New Yorker, described Putin's threats toward Ukraine as a “long-delayed tit-for-tat in response to the air war in Kosovo” and the powerlessness Moscow felt to prevent it.

When Putin was serving as prime minister, having turned over the presidency to his more liberal protégé Dmitry Medvedev, Russia abstained instead of vetoing a 2011 United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya. NATO used that resolution as a green light to impose a no-fly zone over the country, which in turn provided Libyan rebels an opportunity to overthrow longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Believing Medvedev had allowed himself to be duped, Putin ended their power-sharing agreement in 2012 and fully took back the reins of Russia. Since then, he’s steadily worked to prevent what he sees as further attempts to overthrow pro-Moscow governments. That includes in Syria, where years of proposals for a U.S.-led no-fly zone to protect civilians were coupled with calls for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. In the end, it was Putin who established a no-fly zone of sorts in Syria, but one to protect the Assad regime in its campaign against rebels and civilians.

Add to that distrust of no-fly zones Putin’s wrongly held belief that Washington, and not local pro-democracy activists, were behind the so-called color revolutions in 2003 in Georgia and in 2004 in Ukraine. Authoritarian governments with close ties to the Kremlin were toppled both times, which Putin, a former KGB officer, saw as a likely CIA-backed operation.

Putin has also been more repressive domestically since his return to power, cracking down hard on protests against his rule and winnowing away any ability for civil society to dissent. We’re seeing the culmination of those efforts at work today as the few remaining independent media outlets in Russia are forced to shut down or gag themselves for fear of arrest.

Putin is, in fact, desperately afraid of being overthrown. Every action he’s taken at home and abroad over the last decade has illustrated that fact. Putin has already put his own nuclear forces on high alert as a warning signal to the U.S. and other Western governments that he won’t be as easily deposed as some dictators. It’s an effective reminder on his part, as there’s no question that he would see American or NATO forces firing on Russian military aircraft as a precursor to his own removal. What he might do in response to such a perceived threat is too awful to imagine.