Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy told a special session of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday that “Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people.” “This is a terror Europe has not seen for eighty years and we are asking for an answer to this terror from the world,” he said. “Is that a lot to ask? To create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people. Is this too much to ask?”
Zelenskyy’s request was expected. Ukrainians and pro-Ukraine think tanks and activists have been relentless in their calls for a no-fly zone over the Ukrainian skies. One can sympathize with the Ukrainians. For some reason, they expected NATO cavalry to arrive over the gray hills. Ukrainians have also been misled for decades about their chances of joining NATO. Zelenskyy has been exemplary and brave in his stoic leadership, heralding a return to the Great Man Theory of history and drawing comparisons to Winston Churchill.
If there is one glaring similarity between Zelenskyy and Churchill, it is that Zelenskyy understands as much as Churchill that dragging the United States into a potential world war—even a nuclear war—is in the interest of his country. Whether it is in the interest of the United States is a different question altogether.
A new poll showed that American support for a no-fly zone plummets when respondents are told that a no-fly zone means “the U.S. military would shoot down Russian military planes flying over Ukraine, possibly triggering a war between the U.S. and Russia.” That should have been expected. Earlier in March, seventy-eight experts, including myself, signed an open letter opposing a no-fly zone in Ukraine, adding heft to the argument against putting U.S. troops in direct engagement with Russians. That came after a group of twenty-seven experts used their own open letter to advocate for a “limited no-fly zone” over Ukraine.
The consistent attempt on the part of Ukraine to drag NATO into a shooting war with Russia was understandable as an appeal to emotions and a way to manipulate the goodness of Westerners genuinely enraged by Russian savagery. But proponents of further Western military support to Ukraine do not grapple with the risks of escalating the conflict. The fear is not that NATO could lose a conventional war, but that it would push Russia into a corner from which a nuclear response would be Moscow’s only choice.
Russia’s baffling performance in the war has also led to speculation that Moscow understands the risk of a potential NATO-Russia war, leading the Russian military to save its best assets in case the conflict spreads from regional to continental. The Russians were under the misguided belief that Ukraine would fold and there would be no Western sanctions, made evident by two crucial and visible mistakes. Russian president Vladimir Putin did not withdraw Russia’s foreign currency reserves before the war, and the sanctions resulted in his war chest being frozen. Second, there were some baffling operational maneuvers. The Russian Air Force remained mostly grounded or distant. The Russian strategy focused on heavy artillery, reverting to Soviet-style column formations. Russian Rosgvardia troops advanced without air cover, and Spetsnaz special forces used operational tactics that were common in the 1990s but obsolete in the age of drones, satellite imagery, social media, and open-source intelligence.
Russian strategic planning was devastating. Ukraine claims that four Russian generals have been killed. Russian armored forces are moving slowly, suffering from logistics issues. Russia has failed to isolate western Ukraine and stop weapons from flooding into the country. Structural issues of low morale, under-paid conscripts, inter-operational planning, and unused naval infantry were also visible, similar to Russian operations in Georgia during the 2008 war. In that conflict, Russian forces resorted to old and flawed Soviet-era maps and slow movement, using cell phones to communicate with superiors. Russia’s Crimea operation was mostly executed by special forces in a region where they had superior numbers and the advantage of secrecy and local support. Operations in Syria were primarily based on air cover, with Syrian ground troops serving as cannon fodder. None of that prepared Russia for a high-intensity interstate war in the second-largest country in Europe. Russia has paid a heavy cost to learn that coordinating massive multi-domain operations is not easy. But Russia is still winning. By March 15, Russia’s eastern thrust from Crimea towards Donetsk joined in a land bridge. Another axis is marching south from Kharkiv, threatening to cut off eastern and southern Ukraine.
The Biden administration rightly said that it would not back a "no-fly zone" over Ukraine. But that should not be cause for complacency. As Jacob Heilbrunn noted, the Russian invasion has given new life to internationalists on the Left and hawks on Right, putting the ascending conservative restraint movement at risk. The “humanitarian intervention” groupthink is also visible in the melodramatic mainstream media echo chamber. Intervention remains a reflexive response often carelessly pushed by journalists who grew up in a unipolar world with no concept of operating under multipolarity, where restraint, realism, and amoral compromises are often needed.
European rearmament presents a golden opportunity to refocus American grand strategy and narrow national interests. Europe can assume primary responsibility for the conventional defense of Europe, with only American nuclear and naval forces acting as offshore balancers. It is a fallacy that so much of our modern commentary focuses on a World War II-era narrative of good and evil. More attention should be paid to the complexity of the multipolar era before World War I, when alliances were chained together and smaller countries on the periphery dragged great powers toward utter civilizational catastrophe.
Sumantra Maitra is a national security fellow at the Center for the National Interest and an elected, early career historian member at the Royal Historical Society. He can be reached on Twitter at @MrMaitra.