Thanks to the folks at NPR for keeping us awake on a recent long drive. NPR does some things really right: Like interviewing newsmakers, for best example. Over the weekend, host Adrian Florido interviewed Jim Himes, a congressman from Connecticut, and some of the thoughts that came during the broadcast were better than caffeine for keeping us alert and wide-eyed. And a little scared.
Apparently the president of Ukraine held a conference call with more than 280 U.S. lawmakers late last week. (Two-hundred and eighty!) As you might expect, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked for military aid to fight off the Russian invasion. He asked for help securing his skies. And he asked for a no-fly zone over his country, provided by NATO.
Now, no-fly zones have been put in place before, notably over Iraq after the First Gulf War as Saddam Hussein tried to use his second wind (given to him when he wasn't removed after his Kuwait disaster) to kill Kurds. No-fly zones help to level the battlefield so that a smaller force can defend itself against a larger, probably government force. Without helicopters and airplanes raining down death from above, it's easier for a guerrilla action to gain ground.
But, and this obvious fact must be stated just now, no-fly zones must be enforced. The Americans shot down Iraqi helicopters on frequent occasion. Today, the president of Ukraine is asking that NATO shoot down Russian aircraft.
That means war. Between NATO and Russia.
Congressman Himes said President Zelenskyy knew that request was probably a step too far. So he asked, in the alternative, for planes for his country to defend its own skies.
NPR: "Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska said he interpreted the Ukrainian president's message as, quote, 'close the skies, or give us planes.' Was that your takeaway, too?"
Congressman Himes: "That's exactly the way he framed it. And, you know, obviously he would like a no-fly zone, but he also recognizes what I hope that--as that becomes more of a topic of conversation in Washington we all recognize, which is that a no-fly zone is the United States military or NATO going to war with Russia. So he acknowledged in the way he made the ask that that's a very, very big step but was very clear about his need for planes and that the world stop buying Russian energy."
NPR: "Do you favor establishing a no-fly zone? And is there any way to establish one that wouldn't amount to NATO forces essentially fighting Russian troops?"
Himes: "There isn't. And whether one ultimately becomes necessary or not is going to depend a lot on how bad it gets. And that's just sort of the cynical calculus. But what some people don't understand, because they think about the no-fly zones in Iraq in particular, we don't establish a no-fly zone without taking out all of the threats to the pilots that would be enforcing it. And anti-aircraft weapons operate at great range. So people need to remember that the first thing that we would do in order to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be to send the U.S. military to attack military units inside Russia--the anti-aircraft batteries that are there, the anti-aircraft artillery. United States Air Force planes would be killing thousands of Russian military members inside Russia."
And then what? Russia wouldn't just take it, as Saddam Hussein had to.
Congressman Himes also mentioned our own reaction to such a no-fly zone, and by "our" we mean "NATO." Up until now, NATO has been remarkably united against this Russian aggression. And a united NATO is rare thing. But France, Germany, the UK, and every country in the alliance seems aboard: Help the Ukrainians with weaponry and sanctions against Vladimir Putin's government. But ask them all to put the world at risk for a no-fly zone? Nations would begin to peel away from this united front almost immediately.
The best way to help the Ukrainians doesn't seem to be to ignite another world war, this time between nuclear powers. It seems to be, and Jim Himes mentioned this, to help the Ukrainians by draining the Russian economy with these serious sanctions that the West has already put on Russia. And to squeeze those billionaires around Putin who prop up his regime. And, yes, to keep sending weapons to Kyiv's forces.
The West is doing all we can. Emphasis on "can." Because a no-fly zone won't fly. Not without risking worldwide disaster.