The Russian attack on Ukraine that began last week has encouraged hawkish interventionists to begin floating extremely dangerous ideas to involve the US and its allies in the conflict. Several retired military officers and former officials have been calling for establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would require taking offensive action against Russian forces over Ukraine and the bombing of Russian targets inside Russia. Meanwhile, some prominent foreign policy establishment figures have been recklessly suggesting that regime change should be the stated policy of Western governments. The Ukrainian government has echoed the demand for a no-fly zone, calling on Western states to "close the skies." While there is no indication that any Western governments will embrace these options so far, the proliferation of deranged hardline ideas after just one week of fighting is a troubling sign of where the debate over US and allied policy is headed. The longer that the conflict goes on, the more tempted US and allied policymakers may be to "do something" militarily that would likely deepen and intensify the war.
The US and its European allies have already gambled on waging a massive economic war against Russia, and that runs its own serious risks of further escalation. When economic sanctions have been used to punish a major power for aggressive warfare in the past, they have caused the targeted state to become even more aggressive than it already was. When that economic warfare is paired with reckless rhetoric about shooting down Russian planes and seeking their government’s downfall, it is likely to have an even more destabilizing effect. The Russian government might reasonably conclude that its survival is at stake and could even resort to using nuclear weapons to stave that off.
Interventionists’ enthusiasm for establishing a no-fly zone is a good example of how hawks gravitate to the policies that are sure to make an already horrible situation worse. At least three retired American generals that served as Supreme Allied Commander Europe have endorsed some version of this harebrained idea, and it has also received support from the hardline Congressman Adam Kinzinger. One of the generals, Philip Breedlove, acknowledged what creating a no-fly zone would involve, but then approved of the idea anyway. Wesley Clark ran NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia in 1999 and came dangerously close to starting a war with Russia back then. His call last week for setting up a "safe zone over Kiev" suggests that he is eager to give triggering WWIII another chance.
Rep. Kinzinger was explicit in calling for direct intervention in the war, asserting, "We own the skies. Russia cannot hold a candle to our Air power." Kinzinger hasn’t considered how Russia would respond to an attack on its forces by the US and NATO, but the answer is not hard to guess. Putin has already warned outside states against any interference in the conflict and threatened "consequences you have never seen" to those that disregarded the warning. That has been widely interpreted as a threat to use nuclear weapons, and it is one that cannot be dismissed as bluster. In response to US and European sanctions measures, he has also raised Russia’s alert level. It is not hard to imagine a much more drastic and deadly response if the US and its allies entered the war against Russia.
The calls for regime change that we are starting to hear are just as predictable and even more dangerous. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, referred to "the possibility of desirable regime change in Russia." The former Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, went further to say that "we will not have peace in Europe until there is regime change in Russia." A Western policy of regime change in Russia would effectively kill any hope for de-escalation and a ceasefire in the war. It would not only feed into the Russian government’s feelings of insecurity and mistrust, but it would also likely cause other Russian elites to close ranks around Putin. The surest way to drive the Russian government to escalate and widen the conflict is to make its leadership believe that it is cornered and has no other options.
Loose talk about using air power to impose Washington’s will in a foreign conflict is a relic of an earlier era when the US was able to use force against much weaker states without fear of serious retaliation. Regime change has become the go-to "solution" for interventionists for decades, because they wrongly assume that the divergent interests between the US and other countries can be fixed simply by changing their political leadership. Attempting either of these with Russia amounts to gambling with the security of the United States and Europe when there is no compelling reason to do so. The US had no vital interests in Ukraine that were worth fighting for a week ago, and it still has no vital interests at stake there. The US and its allies must stay out of the war in Ukraine.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.