A ‘No-Fly Zone’ Is a Non-Starter

Most Americans want to keep the US out of the war in Ukraine. The public wants neither troops on the ground nor planes in sky over Ukraine. While there is sympathy for the Ukrainian people, most Americans understand that our government should not join the conflict. The Biden administration has so far refused to listen to hardliners demanding escalation. That is clearly both the right position for the US, and it also happens to be the popular position.

Despite some polling showing widespread support for imposing a "no-fly zone" (NFZ) over Ukraine, a closer look at public opinion polls shows that a large majority of Americans wants no part of the conflict. One early survey said that a gaudy 74% of Americans supported creating an NFZ, but this was simply proof that a lot of people didn’t understand what creating and maintaining such a thing involved. That was easy spot when the respondents in the same poll rejected sending troops or providing close air support to Ukrainian forces. A "no-fly zone" is not meaningfully different from these other options in practice, since it requires attacking Russian forces, including air defenses located inside Russia, and continued enforcement would mean open warfare with the Russian Federation. An NFZ would mark a dramatic escalation and widening of the war, which is of course what many of the people demanding one want.

Most of the public is not so reckless as the hardliners. When pollsters have included questions that clarified what a "no-fly zone" required, support for the idea naturally collapsed. A poll for CBS News asked about support for an NFZ without any other qualifications, and 59% said that they supported it. When it was correctly described as an act of war in a follow-up question, that support sank to 38% and opposition shot up more than twenty points to 62%. In a YouGov poll, support for an undefined "no-fly zone" was at 40%, but when presented with the option of shooting down Russian planes over Ukraine (an essential part of any NFZ) support dropped by ten points and opposition surged to 46%. Because of its euphemistic name and the disingenuous presentation of its advocates, an NFZ may initially sound like a less aggressive option short of war, but the act of creating one is necessarily an act of war against one of the belligerents in an ongoing conflict.

This reality has been obscured because previous US-imposed no-fly zones were used against much weaker states that lacked the means to fight back, and this has created the illusion that they did not involve initiating hostilities against other countries. Trying to impose one over Ukraine would be very different, and it would be unprecedented to try something like this against a nuclear-armed major power. As Richard Betts explained in a recent article for Foreign Affairs, "There are no examples of something called a "no-fly zone" being imposed on a major power outside the context of battles for air superiority in regular warfare." Given Putin’s threats of possibly using nuclear weapons against any state that tried to interfere in the conflict, creating an NFZ brings with it the unacceptable risk of triggering the use of nuclear weapons that might then result in a nuclear exchange.

The insanity of this option and the lack of popular support for it have not discouraged its advocates or their willing accomplices in the media. Chuck Todd is a typical example of the latter, pressing Secretary of State Blinken in an interview earlier this month: "Why rule out a no-fly zone? Why not make Putin think it’s possible?" Three weeks since the Russian invasion started, advocacy for attacking Russian forces has only become louder. Joe Lieberman took a break from his usual advocacy for war with Iran to start plumping for war with Russia, claiming that a "no-fly zone" would somehow be "defensive" when it would have to involve launching attacks on Russian soil. The Ukrainian government has encouraged this by repeatedly calling for the US and its allies to "close the skies." Whether their government fully understands what they are asking for or not, their demands for the US and NATO to go to war for them are keeping this discredited and dangerous idea alive in Washington.

Ukrainian President Zelensky has made increasingly outlandish claims to try to get NATO intervention. He recently said, "If you do not close our sky, it is only a matter of time before Russian missiles fall on your territory, on NATO territory, on the homes of NATO citizens." It is extremely unlikely that the Russian government would choose to expand the war beyond Ukraine unless NATO attacks first, and it makes no sense for NATO to invite attacks on its members by joining a war that it has no compelling reason to join. Zelensky would have the US jump off a cliff for fear of falling.

The Biden administration has resisted irresponsible calls for direct intervention in the war up until now, but we can’t be complacent in assuming that the effort to pull the US into the war has failed. We have seen many times before how objectively terrible arguments for intervention have gradually worn down resistance to them and become official policy. Keeping the US out of this war is imperative for our country’s sake and for the sake of the world.

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.