11 March 2022

Why we can't have a "no-fly zone" over Ukraine

The idea of a no-fly zone over Ukraine has been widely discussed, and president Zelensky has repeatedly called for it.  But NATO refuses to take this step, and rightly so.

A no-fly zone would need to be enforced by NATO, and that would mean shooting down Russian planes which refused to abide by it, as they surely would.  Thus Russian fighter pilots would be getting killed by NATO pilots -- and vice versa, once the Russians started shooting back at the NATO planes which were shooting their own planes down.

That is, we would have an actual shooting war between NATO and Russia, something we (and, generally, Russia too) have always been at pains to avoid, because it's too dangerous.  Once the two nuclear superpowers are actually at war with each other -- in the literal sense of shooting at and killing each others' forces, not mere rhetoric -- the conflict is likely to escalate, and given the unpredictability of warfare and the mistaken information and communication errors which abound, there's too much risk of one side or the other deciding that things have reached the point where a nuclear response is warranted.  Even a limited nuclear action, such as a low-yield detonation over Ukrainian territory or over the sea near an enemy coastline as a "warning shot", would cross a line which every nuclear-armed nation has been careful to avoid crossing since 1945.  The other side would have to respond, and might do so by escalating to a slightly more provocative and dangerous action, and so on.

Once the hard line of "no shooting war between NATO and Russia" is crossed, there is no other obvious hard line on the way to nuclear escalation and eventually to all-out nuclear war.  We would have abandoned one of the key rules which has prevented that catastrophe ever since the mid-twentieth-century when it became technologically possible for both sides to annihilate each other.

To put it in plain English, if NATO imposes a no-fly zone over Ukraine, we set out on a road which could easily end with you personally, dear reader, being burned alive in your home, along with a few hundred million other people.

Of course we need to make sacrifices to support a fellow democracy in Ukraine when its survival is at stake.  If we spend billions on weapons to send to the Ukrainians, or if gas goes to ten dollars per gallon for a few months, those are acceptable sacrifices -- trivial, even, considering what's at stake.  But we are not obligated to create a hugely-increased risk of the incineration of our whole country and of its allies (and of Russia).  I would argue that it is not morally allowable to do so.  Any government's first duty is to protect the safety of its own people and territory.  To the US government, the safety of American people and territory must come first -- as each NATO government must also protect its own, as its highest priority.

We and the other democracies are already providing a great deal of help to the Ukrainian resistance both in military aid and sanctions, and will continue to do so.  It's dubious how much good a no-fly zone would do, in any case.  Most of the destruction being inflicted on Ukraine's cities is being done by missiles and shelling, not by aircraft.  If Ukraine ends up under occupation, the West will continue to help the inevitable resistance for however long is necessary, as we did in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.  But given the course of the war so far, and the amazing effectiveness of the Ukrainian military, the chances are fairly good that it will end with Russian control being beaten back from all or most of Ukraine; if so, the West will continue to help rebuild the country and its defenses.  Under the actual existing circumstances, this is as much as we can do.

o o o o o

Many of the vehicles in the giant convoy near Kyiv have re-deployed to new locations nearby.

In a further escalation, Russia has launched missile attacks on the cities of Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk in the far west of Ukraine.

Ukrainians in Russian-controlled zones continue to protest and resist as best they can.

A child sings in a bomb shelter.

Video from a town near Kyiv shows a Russian tank destroying a civilian car without provocation.

A few days ago this disturbing photograph was released, of refugees who had been attacked by Russian forces.  The woman and the two children were already dead, and the soldiers were trying to save the man, who was still alive (he later died).  The woman and children have now been identified.

A local man filmed the devastation in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv.

An 18-month-old child in Mariupol became one more casualty of Putin's war.

The Ukrainians have captured so much Russian equipment that Russia itself is materially contributing to the re-supply of Ukrainian forces (found via Hackwhackers).

Expats from Putin's puppet-state Belarus are forming their own unit to fight against the invasion of Ukraine.

See Ukrainians obliterate a Russian tank unit approaching Kyiv from the east.

This video gives a good overview of the logistical failures crippling the Russian invasion:


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I was watching Fox News hosts spewing all kind of absurd (and ridiculous) ideas of how to deal with the Russian invasion. From repeating Cheeto's idea of making NATO and American planes 'look like they were from China' to all kinds of weird suggestions that seemed ripped from a Steven Seagal movie. Really.
Vlad thought this was gonna be easy, and the costs of his vanity project and power grab are going to be felt the world over.


11 March, 2022 03:00  
Blogger NickM said...

I concur though I rather liked the idea of Poland donating MiGs to Ukraine so the could get F-16s.

I suppose you know why Gen. Douglas MacArthur* was sacked by Harry Truman**? MacArthur got too big for his boots and violated a direct presidential order thereby directly getting China involved in the Korean War. MacArthur's solution was to nuke China (and also Russia - in for a penny and all that). When Truman found out about this his response was to sack MacArthur.

"I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail."

-Truman in '73 in an interview with Time Magazine.

And of course Harry Truman is the only man in History to employ nuclear weapons.

I know this because of playing the Korean War flight sim "MiG Alley" and visiting Key West where Truman spent a lot of time whilst prez. The "Little White House" tour on KW is fascinating.

*Fun piece of trivia. Doug called his son Arthur after his Grandfather. Arthur MacArthur IV... Wow! I dunno if he was a "dumb son of a bitch" but the family certainly lacked imagination in naming children.

**Harry S Truman. The "s" doesn't stand for anything. Truman didn't have a middle name but he thought adding the "s" made him seem more... Presidential.

11 March, 2022 03:28  
Blogger bluzdude said...

I completely agree. Once we start a shooting war with Russia, the mutual will to not lose will escalate into the worst-case scenario. No matter how much the guys at the bar and on Fox "News" like to talk tough, we cannot allow that to happen.

11 March, 2022 05:06  
Blogger jenny_o said...

It's going better in Ukraine than I had expected (and undoubtedly worse than Putin expected). I hope sanctions and support via equipment will be enough to push back Putin but I worry that they won't. I get your point about the no-fly zone though.

There was an interesting CBC interview recently with Vladimir Milov (former Chairman of the Russian Democratic Choice party. He stated that he believes there is a greater than 50% chance that Russia and NATO will end up in a war, based on the assumption that there is a high chance of accidental strike(s) on either side, which would trigger retaliation. Accidentally starting a war is not something I had considered.

11 March, 2022 09:18  
Blogger jenny_o said...

I don't know if you have access to this but here's the link for the Milov interview, if you're interested:

11 March, 2022 09:23  
Blogger SickoRicko said...

Your essays always have a way of bringing me back from the edge of destruction.

11 March, 2022 10:38  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

Yep, you're right about that. A shooting was with Russia would not end well.

11 March, 2022 10:49  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What should happen if Russia attacks a NATO country? Do we then say that Russia is the one that crossed the line, and escalate and hope that it doesn't go nuclear? Or do we say "America first" and still refrain from a shooting war with Russia? I can even see an argument that if you think you're on a path to all-out nuclear war, you should just skip ahead and fire hundreds of nuclear weapons, perhaps catching the enemy slightly off-guard.

11 March, 2022 10:59  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: I'm sure Fox themselves knows that no one who makes actual decisions is listening to them. It's all about ratings and keeping the base whipped up, and they're free to be as irresponsible as they like for that purpose.

NickM: In some cases, there can be value in generals with some independence. I'm very glad that general Milley was ready to defy Trump toward the end, and I hope that some of Putin's people would also refuse to obey if he went berserk and tried to go nuclear.

Bluzdude: Thanks. Luckily, at least in the US, we no longer have a leader who thinks that talking tough is an acceptable replacement for thinking.

Jenny_o: It's still impossible to know how this war will work out. At the start, I assumed Russia would conquer Ukraine and there would be a long war of resistance lasting for years until the Russians gave up and left, as with the Soviets in Afghanistan or the US in Vietnam. That could still happen, But I'm starting to feel hopeful that the Ukrainians may be able to defeat the invasion by regular military means.

I'll take a look at the link.

Ricko: Thanks. I hope similar arguments in Washington will keep the world as a whole back from the edge of destruction.

Mary K: Which is why both sides have worked so hard to avoid one for generations.

Anon: The assumption is that Russia will not attack a NATO country, for the same reason we won't impose a no-fly zone -- because it would mean a Russia-NATO shooting war, which is too dangerous to risk. If Russia did attack a NATO country, we would be obligated by the treaty to fight, and I suppose all we could do would be to fight back by conventional (non-nuclear) means and do everything possible to avoid nuclear escalation. Considering the ineptitude the Russians have shown in Ukraine, I don't think they'd have much chance in a conventional war against modern Western armies (which is another reason Putin is unlikely to attack NATO). But the possibility of imagining a hypothetical scenario where Russia might take such a foolish risk isn't a justification for actually taking such a risk ourselves. Quite the contrary.

The advantage gained by a nuclear surprise attack would be negligible. Both the US and Russia are well prepared for the possibility of a surprise first strike, and such a tactic would do very little to limit their ability to retaliate. It would still mean destruction of both countries and their allies. Once a real nuclear exchange started, we would be doomed regardless of the details. The point is to avoid getting on that path to such a thing in the first place.

11 March, 2022 12:51  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

I have learned a lot the last couple of weeks about what constitutes a declaration of war. It turns out to be very complicated, but in regard to this issue, declaring a no-fly zone, which is implicitly a promise to shoot down enemy aircraft, does indeed meet that standard, and is considered a declaration of war. That is the reason that Biden basically cannot go along with the demands that he do that. This is the same reason that he was unable to go along with the transfer, through the US, of Polish MiG-29's to Ukraine, which also would likely constitute a declaration of war. As we would expect from Biden, he is quietly doing what he has to do, without responding to pressure from the right wing maniacs that would have already gotten us into a war, maybe on Putin's side.

11 March, 2022 12:55  
Blogger NickM said...

Britain has this:

The letters of last resort are four identically-worded handwritten letters from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the commanding officers of the four British ballistic missile submarines. They contain orders on what action to take in the event that an enemy nuclear strike has destroyed the British government, and has killed or otherwise incapacitated both the prime minister and their designated "second person", typically a high-ranking member of the Cabinet, such as the Deputy Prime Minister or the First Secretary of State, to whom the prime minister has designated the responsibility of choosing how to act, in the event that they die in office. In the event that the orders are carried out, the action taken could be the last official act of the United Kingdom.

If the letters are not used during the term of the prime minister who wrote them, they are destroyed unopened after that person leaves office, so that their content remains unknown to anyone except the issuer.

- from wikipedia.

I think they used to be called, "Letters of Last Resort and Reprisal". If a Botoxed twat in The Kremlin wants to destroy London, Manchester, Glasgow, Bristol etc. Then I want my last conscious thing to be seeing a supersonic blast wave from Petersburg to Vladivostok. There is a significant difference between a mere deflagration and a detonation.

I don't want that but Putin must be made to know this and the risk he faces.

Alas, I don't see a viable off-ramp for him.

That really worries me.

And that is just Britain. Every nuclear capable country has an Osterhagen Key.

11 March, 2022 14:42  
Blogger NickM said...

Green Eagle,
Putin started this war. Whilst I get your technicalities I would much rather see Polish MiG-29s sent to Ukraine than maternity hospitals bombed.

11 March, 2022 14:47  
Blogger NickM said...

Green Eagle,
I just thought of this... How can Polish MiG-29s being supplied to Ukraine be a declaration of war yet the supply of Javelin, NLAW and Stingers isn't? And if Stingers aren't able to shoot down enemy aircraft then... I mean that what is what they were designed for! My take on this is the best possible end to this utter disaster is a Russian defeat achieved as rapidly as possible.

11 March, 2022 15:09  
Blogger Bohemian said...

It's all very complicated, isn't it? I'm glad I'm not making any of these huge weighty decisions. Putin must be stopped and I personally have no real viable solution as to how that will happen. He's insulated himself and he's unhinged, I doubt few are in his inner circle that can influence him, they're too dependent upon him, so I suspect they 2nd guess what he wants all of the time and say what he wants to hear, lest they end up in some Gulag. I'm hoping we are doing so much more than sitting on the sidelines watching a Genocide... I don't know how much we CAN avoid if he keeps pushing boundaries and crossing lines... at what point is it too far? Yet, you are correct, full on War would be almost Globally Suicidal due to Nuclear capacity risks and whose got their eagerness to use them.

11 March, 2022 19:32  
Blogger Green Eagle said...


Nothing is a "technicality" when it might start a nuclear war. And as I said, the issue of what constitutes a declaration of war is very complicated and way beyond my knowledge of international law. For example, I learned a few days ago that providing another country with general intelligence assistance is legitimate, but giving them the specific location of an enemy unit is an act of war. Every move we make is fenced in by a host of precedents and rulings. I think that, so far, Biden has done a great job of walking through this minefield, and particularly when you consider that he is undoubtedly doing a lot that is not known to you and me, I'm content to have him continue on as he is going.

11 March, 2022 21:58  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Green: If NATO and Russian pilots are shooting at each other, that's war, obviously. I don't really understand why supplying fighter planes would fall into that category while supplying other kinds of weapons wouldn't, but obviously Biden has access to far more information, including about Russian military doctrine, than the average blogger does.

NickM: And this is why most nuclear-armed countries put a good portion of their missiles on submarines (I think over half of US nuclear missiles are submarine-based, and all of Israel's) -- they're guaranteed to survive an enemy first strike and be able to retaliate even if the home country is completely destroyed, thus preserving their deterrent effect and ensuring that an enemy would gain nothing from a surprise attack and thus would not carry one out.

I would much rather see Polish MiG-29s sent to Ukraine than maternity hospitals bombed

The problem would be if sending the planes substantially increases the risk of a nuclear war that would destroy most of the maternity hospitals in the developed world (Ukraine included), along with everything else. The Russians are committing a lot of atrocities, and we need to do what we can to stop them, but not at the cost of seriously endangering our own countries. There are other countermeasures such as supplying other weapons, continuing to squeeze the Russian economy, etc.

And if Stingers aren't able to shoot down enemy aircraft then...

My guess would be that fighter planes are able to shoot down enemy planes under a wider range of conditions than ground-based anti-aircraft weapons can. The latter are effective, just not in as many cases. Don't forget, too, that Ukraine's own air force is still operating. They do have planes. And the Russians have suffered substantial losses of aircraft.

Bohemian: Unfortunately I still think this may come down to a years-long guerilla war à la Vietnam combined with ever-tightening sanctions on Russia for however long it takes. The Ukrainians have fought incredibly well, but they're fighting a superpower.

So we're told, anyway. If Russia actually loses this war, in the sense of being pushed out of most of Ukraine, its reputation as a superpower is probably finished. That must be weighing on Putin.

The Russians seem to be gearing up for a large new offensive right now, with an increase in missile attacks and re-deployment of their forces. The coming week could be decisive.

Russia has more of everything, but they can't afford to burn up too high a percentage of their missiles, tanks, planes, etc on this war. They have a lot of other military commitments to cover, for which they need that equipment. The Ukrainians can afford to throw in everything they have, since if they lose this war, they lose their independence.

11 March, 2022 22:02  
Blogger Kay said...

My husband was in the Air Force so is very much attuned to all that's going on. He does agree with you about the problem of a NO-FLY zone. Sigh... I keep hoping for a miracle.

11 March, 2022 22:23  
Blogger Richard said...

Short answer. We don't know what he will do. He is all about himself and it will be ok if this 69 year old murderer decides to do this. Nobody is as intelligent as Putin. He is the master of global strategy, and he speaks for all russians.
Most of us are not Russians, exactly.

11 March, 2022 23:57  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Green: Biden is, I think very capable of handling this type of crisis. He understands the need to be tough with aggressive dictators, but also, as you say, where the lines are that could lead to disaster if crossed. I would have voted for any Democrat for president in 2020, but with benefit of hindsight, it's just as well we didn't have a candidate whose qualifications were limited to domestic affairs.

Kay: I'd be interested in what someone with actual military experience thinks about all this. These days miracles are in short supply, unfortunately.

Richard: Nobody is as intelligent as Putin. He is the master of global strategy, and he speaks for all russians

I assume you mean this is how he tries to present himself. I'm sure not even Putin really believes he speaks for all Russians. He's certainly going all out to cut his people off from non-propaganda sources of information.

12 March, 2022 00:47  
Blogger yellowdoggranny said...

why the fuck doesn't someone just kill him?????

12 March, 2022 05:24  
Blogger NickM said...

Nobody is as intelligent as Putin. He is the master of global strategy

I recall a converssation along similar lines with someone who claimed Hitler was the greatest stragist ever. If playing Civ has taught me anything beyond where the nearest 24hr source of Coke and ciggies was it is this... Truly great stragesits actually win. They colonize Alpha-Centauri. They don't wind up maneouvering divisions that no longer exist and then having to poison their dog before shooting themselves in a cellar. They go to the stars. Putin isn't as much a profound cunt but a Poundland twat.

12 March, 2022 11:57  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Granny: Somebody like the Russian mafia could do that. If we did it, it would mean World War III.

NickM: A truly great strategist doesn't put his country in the position of having most of the world united against it, as Hitler did and Putin is now doing (and as Trump did with his trade wars).

12 March, 2022 19:27  

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