Why We Should Establish a No Fly Zone in (Only) Western Ukraine

As you read this, the war in Ukraine is not going as well for the invaders as they’d hoped.

Despite the superiority of Russian forces they made less progress than might have been expected on the first day of the war when they had the advantages of tactical surprise and potentially overwhelming numbers. The initial assaults lacked the energy and drive that were widely expected. The Ukrainians demonstrated a spirited resistance and imposed casualties on the invaders. Nonetheless today could be darker and future days will be tougher and even more painful. Yet it is still reasonable to ask if Vladimir Putin has launched an unwinnable war. Though the Russians may eventually prevail in battle the first day of the war confirmed what has always seemed likely – that whatever the military victories to come this will be an extraordinary difficult war for Putin to win politically.

While Lawrence Freedman focuses on how Vladimir Putin and the Russian people would react to how the war’s going, this impacts our decision making, too. I’m happy that sanctions against Russia are stepping up a notch. Whether it’s enough remains to be seen (I expect there will be more). More nations are sending weaponry to the defenders in Ukraine, even the Germans. That could very well be enough for Ukraine to holdout permanently.

That doesn’t mean Ukraine won’t lose cities, including the capital. At some point, assuming the Kremlin doesn’t run out of resources (yeah, I’d have laughed at that, too, before I read this from an Estonian MEP), it’s sure to understand that Ukraine isn’t interested in “liberation” and will resort to the usual rubble-doesn’t-make-trouble strategy. The best way to stop that is imposing a no-fly-zone over all of Ukraine.

The simplest argument against this comes from Tom Nichols.

No-fly zone means NATO aircraft engaging Russian aircraft. That’s another way of saying “World War III” and we’re not gonna do that.

A no-fly zone over all Ukraine certainly does mean that, which is why it shouldn’t be done. I am not yet ready to solve global warming with nuclear winter. However, a no fly-zone without engaging Russian aircraft is still, at present, doable, if we limit it to western Ukraine. Even in war, all-or-nothing options can be avoided – and they should be if there’s an optimal alternative – a no-fly zone limited to Lviv and western Ukraine, which has been largely untouched by Russia at present.

Calling for a no-fly zone where Russia’s air force isn’t operating may sound counterintuitive, but it has clear benefits.

First, it protects the supply lines for Ukraine’s weaponry. We don’t know the particular routes NATO members will use to get our weapons to the defenders, but it’s most obviously from Ukraine’s west and through its west. It won’t be long before the Kremlin decides that disrupting the supplies is worth flying into the west after all – unless we’re already patrolling those skies.

Secondly, it would protect the Ukrainian government should Kyiv fall. It is all but certain that if Ukraine’s government has to retreat from Kyiv (and the safe bet is still that, in time, the Kremlin will force that option upon them), they’ll go west. If I can figure that out, Putin sure can.

So why would Russia respect the western no-fly zone? For the same reason Russia’s presence over Kyiv, Kharkiv, and southern Ukraine prevents the U.S. from contesting the air over them. The rule of nuclear shielding makes possession 99% of the law. Russia got to Kyiv, Kharkiv, and southern Ukraine first. We can still get air cover to Lviv and western Ukraine first.

Ukraine is clearly prepared to defend itself to the last – and while the odds are still long, they can win. Those odds can be dramatically shorter (and the lives lost far fewer) with a safe zone in the western part of the country. This opportunity won’t be there forever. We should seize it now.

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