Brent Israelsen: Keep alive the ‘You Fly, You Die’ option in Ukraine

All I am saying is give a no-fly zone a chance

As the free world stiffens its resolve to counter Putin’s mounting war crimes, one option should be placed front and center on the table for all to see:

A NATO-enforced no-fly zone (NFZ) over Ukraine.

With Kyiv’s consent, NATO could declare that Russian combat aircraft over Ukrainian airspace constitute a clear and present danger to NATO, four of whose members border Ukraine, and that Russians have no right to that airspace.

Put another way: “Russian pilots: You fly, you may die.”

For his invasion, Putin has assembled a force of 200,000, equipping them with an impressive array of 21st century weaponry, to confront a much smaller and badly equipped Ukrainian army.

What the Ukrainians lack in numbers, however, they make up for in their will to fight and to protect their homeland. If this were purely a ground offensive, Russian troops likely would already be back in barracks.

Problem is, the Ukrainians are sorely exposed to enemy aircraft. A no-fly zone would give the Ukrainian defenders a fighting chance against the Russians, drastically improving the odds that Putin would fail his campaign and thus be unable ever to set up forward operating bases in spitting distance of NATO states. In the meantime, it would also help keep open transportation routes for military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

And an NFZ would help prevent what could become the most serious and destabilizing refugee crisis since World War II.

NATO state leaders, including President Biden, thus far have resisted an NFZ, at least publicly, although British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not ruled it out. Critics argue that it would be too provocative, a de-facto declaration of war on Russia, and would lead to a wider conflict, “World War III,” even a possible nuclear holocaust.

But that ignores the fact that Putin has expanded this war, repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapons, and may use other unsavory weapons. It ignores the fact that he already has been waging an undeclared war on the West at least since 2005, when he famously stated that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.

With his all-out attack on Ukraine, Putin has proven once and for all that the West’s strategy of ignoring and appeasing him has not worked. To the contrary, Putin has been allowed to become one of the most barbaric dictators in modern European history. He has invaded and occupied sovereign countries; bombed civilians on behalf of other dictators; and poisoned political enemies abroad. In his own country, his regime has murdered, beaten and imprisoned dissidents, journalists, members of the LGBTQ community and adherents of non-Orthodox faiths.

Putin’s undeclared war against the West also has included destabilizing disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks in NATO countries, including the United States, and the illicit support of Western politicians and crime organizations.

An NFZ would send a strong and clear message to Putin that his undeclared war against the West will not be tolerated. The inconvenient truth for Putin is that NATO has air superiority. It pilots have more and better planes and better intelligence and training.

A no-fly zone would not be unprecedented. They were used effectively against Saddam Hussein in 1991. Two years later, NATO successfully enforced an NFZ over the newly independent Bosnia-Herzegovina, where war had been raging for a year.

Yes, the war in Ukraine is different than the wars in Iraq or Bosnia, and the Iraqis and Serbs, unlike Russia, do not possess nuclear weapons. So let’s go back a little further in history, to 1963, when President Kennedy imposed the maritime equivalent of an NFZ with a naval blockade. This “no-sail zone” was to prevent Soviet ships from supplying newly installed nuclear missile sites in Cuba. The blockade, like an NFZ, threatened direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union, which was then, like Russia is now, a formidable nuclear power.

The blockade worked. The Soviets negotiated and nuclear missiles were removed from Cuba.

If Putin has taught us anything, it is that he and the demented Soviet ghosts living inside his head respect and respond to one thing: strength and power.

It’s time the U.S. and NATO showed him something he can truly respect.

Brent Israelsen, a staff writer and news editor for The Salt Lake Tribune from 1995 to 2007, traveled multiple times to the Balkans to chronicle the stories of refugees and war crimes victims. He served in the U.S. Foreign Service from 2009-2019, with postings in Italy, Moldova, El Salvador and Washington, D.C. He now lives in Austin, Texas.