Zelensky to U.S.: We need a no-fly zone

AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

I love the guy, but not quite enough to start World War III for him.

Which is what a no-fly zone would mean — U.S. and NATO jets engaging Russian aircraft in the skies over Ukraine as an increasingly irrational Putin looks on.


To my amazement, at least one typically sober Republican in Washington is prepared to take this step:

That’s going to be a hard no from me, buddy. But I can’t fault Zelensky for trying:

Zelensky, who remains in Ukraine under siege from Vladimir Putin, said in a statement to Axios provided through an adviser: “If the West does this, Ukraine will defeat the aggressor with much less blood.”

“The sanctions are heading in the right direction. In addition to disconnecting the Russian Central Bank from SWIFT and providing more Stingers and anti-tank weapons, we need the West to impose a no-fly zone over significant parts of Ukraine,” Zelensky said.

“Ukraine can beat the aggressor. We are proving this to the world. But our allies must also do their part.”

It’s going to be a hard no from Biden and the White House too. Jen Psaki was asked about the prospect of a no-fly zone and shot it down quicker than the USAF would take down a Russian fighter: “What that would require is implementation by the U.S. military. It would essentially mean the U.S. military would be shooting down planes, Russian planes. That is definitely escalatory. That would potentially put us in a place in a military conflict with Russia. That is not something the president wants to do.”


That’s the right answer. Biden also gave the right answer yesterday when Putin announced he was putting his nuclear forces on higher alert. Typically that would cause U.S. nuclear forces to go on higher alert as well, a frightening shift at a moment when the chances of a miscalculation spiraling into war are higher than they’ve been in decades. =Putin’s designs on Ukraine have been a series of catastrophic miscalculations so far, in fact, believing that Ukrainians would surrender quickly, that a Russian-installed regime would be accepted by the people, and that the west would respond feebly. He’s been glaringly wrong on every count, to the point where western observers are questioning his grip on reality.

You don’t engage in nuclear brinksmanship with a man already prone to fantasy and miscalculation. So Biden said no, declining to order U.S. forces to go to DEFCON 3. That’s exactly the way to play this, emphasizing deescalation at every opportunity. If I were the president, I’d declare publicly in the interests of transparency that the U.S. and NATO won’t initiate hostilities with Russia. Take strategic ambiguity about a first strike off the table so that Putin feels less cornered. Some would call that “weak” but when you’re negotiating with a desperate man who has the entire world wired to explode within an hour, you need him to feel as calm as possible.


The best evidence of how tense this moment is comes from Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intel Committee. Rubio is one of the GOP’s most outspoken hawks, normally demanding displays of U.S. strength in any conflict to which we’re a party. But lately he’s been cautious. A few days ago he hinted at intelligence about Putin’s health — physical or mental? — being suboptimal. Today he’s tweeting stuff like this:

Putin’s bizarre insistence on extreme social distancing from other world leaders suggests that he has special reason to fear COVID, another clue pointing to poor health. A man in poor health might not be thinking clearly. And a man whose illness is terminal might be willing to take the rest of the world with him upon realizing that his play for a lasting legacy in Ukraine had come to unexpected ruin.

Michael McFaul is a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. He’s concerned:


This also feels … not great:

I’m confident the west won’t escalate militarily, knowing the stakes. But I’m nervous that the economic sanctions we’ve imposed on Russia are so draconian, causing such extreme hardship in so little time, that they amount to an escalation more punishing than any conventional military attack. If Russia can plausibly claim in a week or two that the U.S. and EU have inflicted disproportionate damage on the Russian people in response to the war, how does Putin respond? What’s his “equalizer” to bring the west to its knees after the west has brought Russia’s economy to its knees? Unprecedented cyberattacks on power grids? A military invasion of a Baltic NATO state?

Something worse?

As much as hawks would like to turn the screws on Russia until Putin is deposed, that strikes me as risky to the point of recklessness under the circumstances. The safe play is to give Putin a way out of Ukraine that lets him save face. But how? What would a “face-saving” way out for Russia look like that doesn’t involve ceding Ukrainian territory to Putin? Why should he be rewarded for his aggression by gaining something from it? It’s hard to believe he’d accept a return to the status quo, with Ukrainians and Russian-backed separatists locked in a “frozen conflict” in the east. He’d want something more so that he could claim victory. Recognition of Russia’s right to Crimea, maybe?


Again, though, why should he profit from the misery he’s inflicted, especially when his military is currently in no position to dictate terms?

The best I can do to come up with a settlement that might be grudgingly acceptable to both sides is Ukraine pledging not to join NATO for some finite period, say, 10 years. But that still leaves the disputed territories disputed. The fate of Luhansk and Donetsk would need to be settled and presumably Putin will accept nothing less than recognizing Russia’s authority over both. I can’t believe Zelensky would agree to that. Frankly, I’m skeptical that Putin would agree to any lesser settlement either, having moved on Kiev and failed to take it. There may be no way for him to save face at this point that involves Zelensky’s government remaining intact after he accused them of being a Nazi regime and insisted that Ukraine is rightly part of Russia. And if I’m right, the war will not only go on, it will get worse.

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