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The Case For A No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine

When Russia invaded Ukraine, it did so while operating on several false assumptions. First is that Russian military forces would be welcomed as liberators by ordinary Ukrainians. Per the most recent reporting, it seems that the Russians were planning on staging a victory parade through Kiev within weeks after rolling across the border. The second is that Ukrainian military forces would capitulate easily, would suffer from chronic logistical difficulties, would quickly lose an inordinate number of high-ranking officers and would generally be swept away by the technological superiority of the Russian army. As it turns out, the exact opposite of this was true. Russian logistical challenges were already painfully apparent within the first month of fighting, whereas the Russians, not the Ukrainians, have been haemorrhaging their military leadership at a rate faster than any armed conflict within our lifetimes. What's more, Russian military equipment has proven to be almost comically ineffective against the advanced military hardware which is being shipped to the Ukrainian armed forces en masse by numerous NATO states. 


In a sort of macabre twist of fate, Slovakia announced yesterday that it would send Ukraine a number of Soviet-made S-300 Surface to Air Missiles, a highly advanced anti-aircraft system that has the capabilities to knock down not only aircraft but ballistic missiles as well. Russian made equipment is being turned around and pointed at the beast which manufactured this machinery of death in the first place. Many NATO states in Eastern Europe operate this older Soviet system, and Slovakia is likely only the first of many to offer its use to its Ukrainian neighbors. In exchange for this delivery, Slovakia was given replacement Patriot missile batteries from the United States and the Netherlands. NATO announced that Dutch and German troops numbering just over 1,000 have been deployed to Slovakia to man these systems, creating another iron link on the chain of combat-ready forces along NATO’s eastern flank. This is welcome news in Ukraine. According to the AP, President Zelenskyy had specifically requested the S-300 from the western allies in his widely televised speech to the US Congress in March. While this may be, the delivery of air defence systems to Ukraine cannot act as a substitute for the real and necessary policy of intervention. Instead of honoring their obligations under international law, the community of Western Europe and North America have tokenized the delivery of weapons instead of actually mounting a serious response to the naked fascism which has arisen in the form of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. 


Earlier this week, the Ukrainian armed forces re-captured the small town of Bucha from Russian military occupation. What they discovered was a scene of unmitigated slaughter. Recently published satellite imagery shows that human remains were present in the streets of Bucha for weeks prior to its liberation. This suggests at least two possible scenarios. One is that the residents of Bucha were subjected to a protracted campaign of terror, with Russian soldiers sporadically shooting civilians as a form of bloodsport. The other, far more gruesome possibility, is that as Russian soldiers retreated earlier this week, they liquidated whatever residents of the town they could find, a mass murder committed in hatred. Several hundred bodies have so far been recovered by the town’s municipal government. It is chilling to think how many other towns and villages in Ukraine have been subjected to similar levels of brutality. The true number of civilians killed by Russian troops will only become clear after the war is over when the numbers can be properly tallied and the remains properly identified. President Zelenskyy made a powerful speech the other day before the United Nations in which he shared uncensored images of dead civilians, their bodies disposed of in shallow graves, where entire families lay in a tangled mess of blood and gore. Those images were arresting. The power of those images lay in the silence of the corpses, lives cut down in an instant by a shower of bullets or a torrent of artillery shells. By broadcasting them to the world, Zelenskyy made it impossible for the west to simply hide these atrocities behind the blur of a ‘sensitive content’ warning. They are now scorched into the minds of millions of people. Every corpse you see has a name. They were either a father or a mother, a son or a daughter. They had ambitions, they had aspirations, they had good times and bad times. They lived their lives in love with their families, their partners, and their friends. They lived and breathed as any of us do, an existence that was real, organic, and above all else, human. Atrocities such as the massacre of Bucha are precisely what international law was made to prevent in the first place. 


International law is not a suggestion. It is not meant to be a pointless exercise in diplomacy. The systems of international law which we live under were borne out of the unspeakable atrocities of the 20th century, they were developed in order to prevent and punish those who would see the world plunged back into its previous conditions of war and famine and pestilence. By conceding to Russian aggression, the governments of Europe and America are putting a great risk the institutional framework of the world order which has long held at bay the worst of humanity’s impulses and debauchery. The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P)  is a doctrine of international law which was adopted unanimously by the world’s governments in 2005 and endorsed by the UN in a resolution of the General Assembly. It compels every state to protect its citizens and the citizens of other states from crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. A primary feature of the doctrine is the “timely and decisive collective response” by the international community when a state is "manifestly failing” to uphold its obligations under R2P. It is the most explicit mandate that the international community has for justifying military intervention in cases of gross violations of the laws of war. The international community has demonstrated time and again, in Sudan, Burma, Yemen, and Xinjiang, that it simply does not take this doctrine seriously. The war in Ukraine is only reaffirming the disdain our governments hold for international agreements which bear our collective signatures. Such is the depth of compassion for the victims of war and aggression, such is the contempt with which we hold our promises. 


It is long past for us to start taking these obligations seriously and honoring our promises made in 2005, and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. NATO has the power and wherewithal to enforce a no-fly zone over large parts of Ukrainian airspace and it should do so promptly. If it is unwilling to do this basic step in the right direction, it should at the very least make arrangements to transfer the Mig-29 fighter jets of Poland, Bulgaria and other eastern NATO states to Ukraine. The United States has an overwhelming surplus of military hardware and refusing to share some of that with its NATO allies for the sake of defending Ukraine’s airspace strikes one as slightly greedy, perhaps even capricious. President Biden’s calculus makes no sense in this regard. We are apparently fine and willing to supply Ukraine with the most sophisticated weapons we can get out hands on. Anything from night vision goggles, anti-ship missiles, anti-tank missiles, anti-air missiles, rifles, ammunition, armored fighting vehicles, and even ambulances is presumably fine, but not fighter jets. The potential transfer was not even meant to involve American-made fighter jets, Ukraine was set to get Russian made aircraft. There is no good reason as to why they should not receive these planes. American made equipment is already being used to kill Russian troops, take out Russian tanks and yes, to shoot down Russian planes. There is not much room left to escalate our role in killing Russian soldiers through weapons deliveries, so it is difficult to see how Russia will treat the delivery of fighter jets as being somehow substantially different from the delivery of other effective weapons systems. Yet, we have failed to do even this basic compromise. 


We should rectify these mistakes and atone for our past lapses of commitment. A no-fly zone is a good place to start, it is a limited action that does not need to escalate any farther beyond what it is, a measure of deterrence. In the last few months, those who set themselves against a no-fly zone had only one real argument, that intervening would immediately start WWIII. Not only is this a reasonless charge, it is precisely what the Kremlin wants the western public to think, repeatedly suggesting and insinuating that a nuclear holocaust was a real option available to the Russian Federation. Few people alive today remember the era of brinksmanship that characterized the early stages of the Cold War, and even fewer young people have a sufficient appreciation of history to adequately understand what brinksmanship entails. Without a historical frame of reference, the western public took this bait and swallowed it whole. Yet, if one were to examine the record of the last two or so years, hyperbolic proclamations of a third world war are nothing new. When President Trump dropped a predator missile on the head of General Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the western media sphere was absolutely inundated with loaded allusions to “Franz Ferdinand” and to a global nuclear war. USA Today ran with the trifling question “U.S.-Iran tensions: How close are we to WWIII?” As it turns out, not very close at all. The BBC asked its readers the rather condescending question “Franz Ferdinand and #WWIII: Why are these words trending?” It’s a trick question really. Because random people use hashtags in a fit of ignorance on Twitter and the BBC reports on it as news. As it turns out, hashtags are one thing, geopolitics is another, in that one is actually news and the other is just hot air. The McClatchy press service was probably the only respectable publication that asked the right question. "Is the US headed for World War III? Here’s what experts say as Twitter fears the worst." Good on them for separating the two. 


A thermonuclear war is a genuine concern and a possibility, as it always has been. Regardless of war or not, the mere presence of nuclear weapons on this planet is inherently risky. That is why they have formed the basis of our collective security for the last 75 or so years. They have successfully deterred major military confrontation between great powers, and where it has broken out, they have ensured that these conflicts remain in the realm of conventional weaponry. They have most certainly generated an enormous amount of restraint on the part of the US, China and the USSR (later Russia). There is nothing to suggest that this strategic calculus has in any way changed. Those who oppose a no-fly zone on grounds of nuclear annihilation have no good response to this simple reality. Their fears rest on the premise that a general ground war will break out in Europe between NATO and Russia and that this ground war will lead to a nuclear one. This mentality reveals an understanding of international affairs informed by Hollywood and popular culture, not reality. 


There are three ways to approach the anti-interventionist argument. The primary charge is that a no-fly zone will start a general conflict between NATO and Russian forces. The scenario entails that a Russian plane is shot down by NATO aircraft over Ukrainian territory, leading to swift retaliation by the Kremlin. The Kremlin, then, will conduct cruise missile and rocket strikes against military targets in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the Baltic States, perhaps even Germany, obviously triggering Article 5 and leading to a commensurate retaliation against Russian military assets, further driving the conflict up the ladder of escalation until it reaches its atomic apex. Unfortunately for the people who hold this view, they are missing quite many rungs on their ladders. It is not entirely obvious that Russia will retaliate for the downing of one or even two aircraft. In 2015, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian Su-24 over Southern Turkey, resulting in the death of one of the Russian pilots who was shot at range by Syrian rebels as he parachuted to safety. What followed were the predictable exclamations of virulent chauvinism by Russian government officials. The leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, made an empty threat to the Turks, saying that the Turkish will grow to "regret what it has done for a long time." Ultimately it came to nothing, a NATO member state shot down a Russian aircraft and lived to tell the tale. No wider escalation dragged other NATO members into conflict and there was no nuclear armageddon. To get from conventional warfare to thermonuclear warfare, there are a lot of rungs on the ladder of escalation which have to be crossed, including but not limited to chemical, biological or radiological weapons. At every stage, each party has all the incentives to deescalate and avoid the final step of a nuclear exchange. There is no reason to believe Vladimir Putin is somehow unhinged and divorced from reality. Putin is no different from the person he was three months ago when everyone generally believed him to be a rational actor and a steely cold and calculated politician. He is no more irrational than you or I. Choosing to believe that he is, again, is precisely what the Kremlin wants its western audience to believe. 


There is a famous old story about a man who lived in a rough neighborhood, much affected by crime and robbery and murder. His friend once asked him if the criminals of his neighborhood ever once gave him trouble. He said no, that they generally left him alone. His friend was perplexed as to why hardened criminals would ignore such an easy target. It was simple, the man replied, every time he stepped off his bus, he assumed the posture and clothing of a mad street vagrant, ranting at random and muttering to himself under his breath like some sort of lunatic. Believing him to be dangerously insane and generally unstable, the criminals would avoid him at all costs. After all, there is no telling what a crazy man can do. Yet this is not Vladimir Putin. Nobody spends the better part of their adult life amassing a literal dragon’s horde of wealth and building gargantuan pleasure palaces in Southern Russia, as Putin has done, just so they can then go and blow up the whole world. Vladimir Putin is not crazy. He is a greedy man who clearly covets material wealth and worldly pleasures, not thermonuclear annihilation. 


Alternatively, one may argue that even if a nuclear war was to not occur, a no-fly zone would still result in a protracted ground war between Russia and NATO. It is difficult to see how the Russians would manage to sustain such a conflict given their losses in Ukraine and the poor performance of their combat forces. The Russians, before anyone else, are painfully aware of their own losses and their previously unconsidered limitations. It is unlikely they would want to expand the scope of their war and fight in the Baltic States or Poland because they know they simply cannot do so. The Russian army has been humiliated in Ukraine. It has endured thousands upon thousands of deaths, the loss of expensive and sophisticated military hardware, the loss of experienced military leadership and the gradual degradation of the morale of its troops. Bear in mind, that Ukrainians have absolutely trashed the Russian military machine within the space of about three to four months. The combined forces of the US and NATO militaries will almost certainly rip it to shreds. The United States armed forces are, without competition, the most advanced, powerful and effective military power by an immeasurable distance. We have very little cause to fear the prospect of Russian tanks rolling down the streets of Berlin or Warsaw. Kiev is only 300 kilometers from the Russian border, Warsaw is over 1,000. If the Russian army cannot even take a city that is a short walk away from its doorstep, they most certainly will not cross thousands of kilometers into western Europe. 


We should quit taking Vladimir Putin’s words at face value because in doing so, we take ourselves for fools. We should call his bluff for what it is, a craven attempt to impress his enemies with outrageous barbarism and cruelty. I am not impressed. I have seen what Russian power means and it means systematic military failure. Russia’s military performance in Ukraine would be an embarrassment to any country which still professes itself to be a great power. It has the means to contest a no-fly zone and we should not be blind or ambivalent about the commitment that such an undertaking would require, or the risks that are very real. A no-fly zone is an immensely complex and expensive military operation involving ground teams, aerial refueling and an array of air defence systems. As challenging as a no-fly zone is, preventing war crimes and flagrant murder is our mandated imperative. We should do it, not because it is easy, but because it is right. We have no more excuses to hide behind. After the mass graves in Ottoman Armenia were dug up, the world collectively agreed upon the basic mantra of "never again." When Nazi concentration camps were uncovered and publicized by Allied Forces in 1945, the world once again collectively proclaimed "never again." When the scale of Serbian war crimes became visible in the former Yugoslavia, the world once again returned to the now tired and stale phrase of "never again." "Never again" actually has to mean something this time.

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Tags: #Russia #HumanRights #WorldPolitics #Ukraine #UnitedNations #UnitedStates #NoFlyZone


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