The dumb, dangerous, symbolic politics of a no-fly zone

By Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

The United States has responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a mixture of symbolic and material measures. Both are important, but it is equally important that policymakers do not confuse the two.

An example of a symbolic response would be President Biden’s executive order Tuesday barring U.S. imports of Russian oil or natural gas. The United States imported only a small amount of Russian oil. It should not be too hard for Russia to find alternative buyers. That said, contagion effects are real, and if this move inspires Europe to reduce its imports, too, that could have a severe impact on Russia’s economy. Symbols do matter!

The material response, both before and after the invasion, has had a more direct effect on Russia’s inability to force the issue. U.S. aid since 2014 helped transform Ukraine’s military from a broken-down Soviet shell into a real fighting force. Intelligence-sharing between NATO and Ukraine has bolstered its defenses. So has the shipment of weapons and other military aid to assist Ukrainian fighters. The European Union has welcomed in more than a million Ukrainian refugees. The U.S.-led diplomatic and economic sanctions against Russia have considerably raised the price Russia will pay for carrying out this war. And this is only the stuff we know. One can only speculate on the role that NATO’s cyber and clandestine capabilities might have played.

All these steps have put Russian President Vladimir Putin on the defensive. In previous conflicts, Putin was always the actor blurring the lines, using economic coercion and arms shipments and covert action and “little green men” to advance his interests. Now Russia’s leader is left muttering that the sanctions are tantamount to a “declaration of war,” complaining about the very actions he has taken against Ukraine for more than a decade.

These policy responses matter, but so do the facts on the ground. As Russia continues to grind its way through the south of Ukraine, there have been growing calls for NATO to do more. Calls for instituting a “no-fly zone” emerged last week — including from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Even Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said “it means starting World War III.” Pro tip: If Rubio thinks a military escalation goes too far, that is a very bad omen for the sanity of the idea.

Still, there is now some political momentum. Politico’s Playbook reported that more than two dozen foreign policy veterans signed a letter calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine — well, sort of. Specifically, the text of the letter calls for the Biden administration to “impose a limited No-Fly Zone over Ukraine starting with protection for humanitarian corridors that were agreed upon in talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials on Thursday.” You can read the whole letter here.

Others want to go further. Fox News’s Jacqui Heinrich reported 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.”

A small part of me likes the mischief-making in this pared-down version of a humanitarian no-fly zone. Making the offer will probably lead to Putin acting very huffy and then rejecting it and then declaring that any no-fly zone is tantamount to war.

At that point, however, folks need to stop being silly and recognize that an actual no-fly zone is a very risky symbolic act rather than a material one. Unless the reporting of the war is wildly off, Russia does not appear to be relying on its air power all that much (outside of maybe its helicopters). Russia is mostly fighting this war on the ground.

I’ll leave it to my Post colleague Max Boot as to why even attempting this is a foolhardy move:

Let’s be clear about what this entails: U.S. aircraft firing on Russian aircraft, radars and surface-to-air missile sites. The Russians would fire back. There would be casualties on both sides, and war fever could easily get out of control. Are we really prepared to go to war with a nuclear-armed state? The United States wisely resisted that temptation during the Cold War even when it meant standing by and watching Russian tanks snuff out rebellions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The same calculus applies today.

Just because Zelensky wants something does not mean it is in NATO’s interest to provide it. A no-fly zone would be a most symbolic act that dramatically increases the likelihood of NATO and Russian forces firing on each other. It’s the worst of all policy options.

This piece is republished from the Washington Post.

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