Plain English with Derek Thompson - Why a No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine Could Be—Literally—the Worst Idea Ever

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today, we’re going to talk about an idea that could end the war in Ukraine or And civilization, as we know it.

And that sounds like a pretty dramatic dichotomy, but I actually don’t think it’s an exaggeration.


The idea is a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Now a no-fly zone is very simply any order that bans aircraft over a certain area.

There is a no-fly zone over the White House in Washington.


There were no fly zones established in Bosnia in the 1990s in Libya in 2011.


And in the last week a debate has heated up over whether the US and NATO.

Should establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, kick the Russians, out of the sky dozens of foreign policy.

Experts are on the record pleading with the US government to build a no-fly zone in Ukraine, you turn on cable news, and you will see them and you will hear them.


Senator, Joe manchin of West Virginia.

One of the most important people in Washington has pressed for a no-fly zone.

Present solinsky of Ukraine has also called for it, ukrainians that I spoke to in.

The last episode said, they were praying for it.

A broad bipartisan majority of Americans 74% of Americans, including most Republicans.


And most Democrats say the US and its allies should impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

You cannot get Americans to agree on the color of the sky these days.

But three and four say yes to this idea.

So far, the White House has said know, why will the term itself?


Sounds pretty simple.

Even safe a no-fly zone.

That doesn’t sound like War.

It sounds like the opposite of War.

Everyone should want Ukraine to be a Zone where Russian planes don’t fly, that’s obvious, but the term refers to an excellent outcome while concealing a terrible process.


To clear the Skies over Ukraine, the US and its allies would have to engage Russia in essentially War enforcing.

A no-fly zone would require NATO forces to shoot down any Russian plane that flies over Ukraine.

It might require neutralizing.


Russia’s capacity to fire missiles into Ukraine, from its own territory.

That is a no-fly zone would have to bomb in Russia to stop Russia from bombing, Ukraine.

That means war between the US and Russia war between NATO and Russia war between nuclear powers.


So to discuss this extraordinary, dilemma.

Today’s guest is Robert, right?

Bob Wright is the best-selling author of several books, including the moral animal and nonzero.

He is the author of The nonzero newsletter and a foreign policy, commentator and critic.

We talked about the history and the logic of no-fly zones the fierce fierce debate over this popular policy.


The rise of the blob, his loving or not.

So, loving term for the foreign policy, establishment in Washington and The end a deeper consideration of War.

Moral judgment and War.

And why good intentions so often lead to disastrous consequences in u.s.


Foreign policy.

I’m Derrick Thompson.

This is planning.


Bob right, welcome to the podcast.

Well, thanks for having me.

Bob in your own words.

What is a no-fly zone?

A no-fly zone is a deployment of force in the air that ensures that no enemy aircraft will be in the air and sometimes they work very readily, especially, you know, when you have a clearly Superior force and it’s not In the kind of political interest of the adversary to challenge it and this is something we’ve tried before a no-fly zone.


There were no fly zones in effect in Iraq.

After the first Gulf War in Bosnia in the 1990s.

There was a no-fly zone over parts of Libya in March, 2011, that was approved by the United Nations.

What did we learn from those no-fly zones?


Their effectiveness, and how are they different from?

Um, the no-fly zone that we might have to put in effect over Ukraine.

Well, they’re two differences.

First of all, those no-fly zones were relatively easy to establish and maintain.


We had clear air superiority over any adversary, and the adversary didn’t have a particular political incentive to challenge the air superiority.

That right.


There is a big difference compared to Ukraine because obviously the Russian Air Force is formidable and obviously Putin is not likely to back down.

If we tell him that, we decided that actually Ukraine is our space to be.


In the bigger difference, the more consequential difference, ultimately between those cases and Ukraine.

In Ukraine, the adversary you’d be dealing with is a nuclear power.

Russia has thousands of nuclear warheads.


I want to do a pro/con with you about the case for a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

I think you and I come down very strongly in one of these camps.

But for the sake of fairness will review both arguments first, the case for a no-fly zone in Ukraine.

There are a lot of important people who seem to support it, Senator, Joe manchin, who some consider the most important person.


Washington has suggested Did the White House should consider it.

A lot of Washington, d.c.

Foreign policy and Security Experts.

A lot of people in television, are suggesting a no-fly zone.

Here are two strong arguments that I’ve seen.

Number one, Andre your mock, the chief of staff to the Ukrainian president is olinsky wrote The Following in the New York Times, the past week quote.


We firmly believe that Russia won’t stop at just Ukraine, which would potentially drag NATO into this conflict anyway and quote.

Which is essentially the say this is a scenario where Russia is looking to expand, its Empire Beyond Ukraine.

So whether or not NATO gets involved, Russia will just keep going.


That’s number one.

Number two, here is a letter co-signed by dozens, of DC foreign policy Security Experts that came out.

Just this week.

I’m quoting from it.

Quote, a u.s.

NATO, enforced no-fly zone to protect humanitarian corridors.


An additional military means for Ukrainian self-defense are desperately needed.

And needed now end, quote.

So here they’re saying, we don’t need a no-fly zone over the whole country.

We can just have a limited no-fly zone over corridors.

That allow various ukrainians to escape that might seem a little bit more measured.


So Bob putting yourself in the shoes of the people making the pro no-fly zone.


What do you see as their best possible case?

Well, first of all, I don’t blame Ukraine for wanting a no-fly zone and and arguing for one.


It’s an existential issue for them.

At least, it’s an existential issue for for the regime and for a non-trivial.

Number of ukrainians people are dying.

It’s a horrible situation.

And I think that fact accounts for a lot of the support for no-fly zone or or various.


As you know, facsimile thereof that you’re seeing in America, you’re seeing a response to a humanitarian tragedy and that in itself is a healthy thing.

In the sense that, you know, this is the best part of human nature.


We’re talking about the part that sees people suffering and wants to do something about it, and it’s not impossible that what’s olenski’s saying is true, that Putin’s aspirations.

Go beyond Ukraine.


I think the chances of him exercising any such aspirations in the nearer.

Immediate term are extremely slim.

He has his hands more than full in Ukraine.

And I also don’t read him certainly as challenging NATO Powers.


I think that would be almost literally insane.

All right, Bob now, I’m going to let you Unleash Your full opinion on this topic, do you?

Think a no-fly zone over Ukraine is closer to a good idea or an utterly disastrous idea.


I don’t think it’s a certainly disastrous idea.

I think it’s just likely enough to be catastrophic at a nearly apocalyptic level.

That it’s an extremely bad idea.

It isn’t the case.


That a no-fly zone would guarantee a nuclear Exchange.

That it would even move the needle up past 50% probably.

But when you’re talking about a war that could kill literally hundreds of millions of people even billions conceivably moving the needle.


Even one percentage point is considered Gravely irresponsible, and I think rightly, so it’s also not the case that the response to the no-fly zone.

The direct response is envisioned as being a nuclear attack.


By Russia, the concerns that things just spin out of control.

Once you have in effect, a conflict between Russia and the United States, which is a conflict between Russia and NATO.

You’ve got a wider Regional war and things can get out of hand and walk me through the steps, by which a no-fly zone would become catastrophic.


So step is Step One, is we declare a no-fly zone.

We dispatched NATO or American Air Force and other resources to clear the Skies over.


What happens after that?


What are the steps between that and Global catastrophe?

Okay, for starters, there’s a very good chance that Russian fighter jets would immediately challenged American aircraft.


Remember, Putin is in the middle of a kind of existential crisis of his own.

He got into this situation, I think through serious miscalculation and he has real domestic political opposition as a result, probably.


At both the Grassroots and to some extent, the elite level.

And I think he believes that if he doesn’t now Prevail in Ukraine, so that he can say that this has been in some sense, a success.

Whether that means hanging on to a big, chunk of eastern, Ukraine, or at least establishing a strong enough position to negotiate a deal that he can call a success.


I think if he feels, he can’t claim success, you know, he’s in such trouble that that’s just unacceptable from his point of view and for NATO to suddenly have air dominance.

Is too seriously, reduce the chances of his getting anything he can call success.


So I think the Jets are very likely to be that than I think the NATO jets are very likely to be challenged immediately.

So right away, you’ve got a conflict between Russia and NATO that could well go Regional and ultimately nuclear.


And aside from that the standard procedure, when you establish a no-fly zone is to first take out any challenges on the ground in the form of anti-aircraft facilities that can detect your planes and and or launch missiles against them.


In some of those facilities are in Russian territory.

So, you know, if we follow standard procedure, we’re going to be tempted to start bombing Russia right away, and we’re certainly going to do that if Planes start using the ground-based if their planes or their missiles are using ground-based facilities like that to challenge us.


It’s interesting because I think one reason why no-fly zone pulls rather well, and it does seem at the moment to pull pretty well with the American public is that it does it describes, or at least seems to describe a very Placid outcome, while concealing the process.

It says, Ukraine is simply a Zone in which Russian planes don’t fly.



Who’s against that?

No, one wants Russian planes flying over Ukraine, but it conceals the process by which we try to get to that outcome.

What’s more?

And this is what you just said.

Made me think of this no-fly zone isn’t actually the outcome when it comes to a showdown between NATO and Russia.


The outcome as you said is something more like a regional War, right?

NATO or American Air Force bombs Russian forces.

She responds by escalating the war somewhere maybe in the Baltic Maybe by bombing Moldova, Maybe by continuing its Invasion.


And then the US has to respond to that escalation.

And before you know, it we are dangerously close to a scenario where you’re talking about deaths, not in the hundreds or thousands but potentially in the millions, so it’s interesting because no-fly zone conceals two things in that interpretation.


It conceals the process by which we clear the Skies over Ukraine and it conceals the end result.

Of a no-fly zone, which is not just, oh, no planes over Libya.

No planes over Bosnia.

No, it’s a nuclear power with the fourth or fifth largest military in the world.

And one of the most sophisticated air forces in the world.


It would simply pour gasoline on a fire.


No fly zone.

Sounds like just a passive thing.

It sounds like almost just the absence of War which were all in favor of and often.

You know, it almost is that simple again in certain kinds of cases?


Just that this is the opposite of one of those kinds of cases.

And remember, you know, I am not in the Putin has crazy crowd.

I think he’s more or less, a rational actor, even if the degree of his miscalculation with this Invasion suggests.


He is not in touch with good information about the actual real world out there, which is a little troubling in itself, but even with rational actors, As if you do just the standard kind of War Games modeling and see what kind of Tit for Tat scan in Sue from a no-fly zone and throw in just a modest amount of kind of fog of War.


You can readily, get to, to nuclear war, right?

I can imagine some people listening to this and having two objections to the to the case that we’re making objection.

Number one is that if you extend our logic too far, or if you simply Logic and say you cannot declare no-fly zones, when a nuclear power invades a border and country.


That essentially means that Russia China India, Pakistan Britain, France.

Israel have a kind of de facto opening to invade their neighbors and then to say, don’t try to punish us with military retribution because Because, you know what?


We got.

We got a nuke in the back pocket.

And if you come anywhere near us and you try to stop us, we can always lose our minds and maybe bomb you with a nuke.

So where does the logic end here?

Where does it leave us to say that NATO?


Can’t enforce a no-fly zone over Russia because these kind of military showdowns between nuclear powers are untenable.

I think the, the unfortunate truth is that in a world of nuclear superpowers.


There are some forms of aggression that you can’t realistically.

Do anything about that said, I do not think it’s impossible to build a world where nuclear superpowers don’t take advantage of those kinds of opportunities.


I’ve been a big Advocate, the United States itself establishing an example of strict.

Compliance with international law in terms of not invading countries.

It is not done that.

It has invaded Iraq, and pretty clear violation of international law.


It’s had other military interventions that were pretty clearly in violation of international law.

American troops in Syria right now are in violation of international law and the Russians.

This is a big grievance of there’s in 2007, Putin delivered, a speech at the Munich, at the Munich.


Security conference, where the speech got a lot of attention because it was very strident.

And he said, look, the US has been violating international law left and right.


They’ve been expanding NATO.

They seem bent on expanding it to as many of her borders as possible.

And this is just not acceptable.

And at that point, Russia had not committed these kinds of violations of international law.

And then the next year in 2008, George w–.


Bush kind of strong-armed reluctant European allies into declaring that Ukraine, and Georgia would become members of NATO.

And look.

I’m not making excuses for Putin.

Okay, you know, what he did is a clear violation of international law.


He’s the criminal in this case, but I do think that if we really want a world Old in which countries don’t invade other countries.

And I do think that’s achievable.

We have to pay more attention to the strictures of international law ourself in the meanwhile.


We’re going to we’re going to live in a Messier world than I would like where you have to respect certain kinds of red lines, as you know, as being lines that if you cross them just bring an unacceptable.

Chance of nuclear war.


There is a shared set of assumptions that have guided American foreign policy in the last few decades, that kind of constitute the implicit ideology of The Blob and it tends to lead to a lot of military intervention.


In various forms direct intervention aerial intervention including drone, strikes, proxy.

Prevention, even even kind of non-military meddling in country’s Internal Affairs that can bring blowback of its own.


It just seems to some of us that it backfires more often than not the same with, same with the humanitarian impulse, which has become a bigger part of foreign policy motivation.

I would say over the last few decades, a bigger part of the rationale for intervention.


It’s a Great impulse.

In my view it backfires more often than not.

Just one example would be Syria.

We turned what would have been a brutally crushed Rebellion, which is a horrible thing in and of itself into a raging Civil War that got hundreds of thousands of people killed.


And in the end, the leader we had hoped to depose was still running the show anyway, so among the things that the that characterized the blob are the sense of American exceptionalism and attended desire to spread American values, a strong and laudable in itself, humanitarian, impulse a kind of almost Mauna Kea, and view of the world dividing it into good, good and evil and particularly dividing it along the line of democracies on the one hand and autocracy is on the other again, laudable impulse.


I think it often has bad consequences to create that.

Dividing line because it for one thing tends to have the effect of forging a stronger Alliance among the autocracies.

And so the kind of you know, the division of the world between good and evil becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


What is the most important mistake you think the Blob made in the run-up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?

Well, in the 1990s, after the Cold War.

We at first made some verbal assurances to what was then the Soviet Union that we would not be expanding, NATO at all Beyond, you know, East Germany, which had become part of West Germany, then, in the late 90s.


The decision was made to actually expand NATO people warned against this George Kennan, who is known as the architect of the containment policy that during the cold.

Or is considered a big success warned against it, vehement lie.

He said, you know, Russia is going to react badly to this and then people are going to say that’s what Russia is like, they’re aggressive.


He says and that’s wrong that we will have made them do this.

We will have provoked them and in 2008, we made the Fateful commitment to eventually admit, Ukraine and Georgia.


We already expanded it to It to Russia’s borders and encompassed.

Some former Soviet republics.

Okay, not just former Warsaw Pact Nations like Poland and Hungary.


So Russia was already finding this deeply threatening and and not shockingly.

I mean, it’s it’s comparable to say, finding out that Mexico is entering into a pact with China and they will now have Chinese weapons and maybe Chinese troops.


Sue knows, you know, we would totally freak out, you know, people say well now we know it was a good idea because look how aggressive they are.

But I think a careful look at the evidence and the actual sequence of events strongly suggests that the reason we have a problem in Ukraine is not because we didn’t let Ukraine into NATO sooner.


But because we expanded NATO, you know, somebody said, I forget who that, you know, since the Cold War, NATO has been an organization whose mission is to deal with problems created by its existence.


And I think in some cases that that sadly is true.

What’s the biggest mistake that you think the Blob made not in the last decade or two decades, but in the last six months, is there something that the by Administration other people in Washington d.c.


Could have done that would have made the invasion of Ukraine less likely in your opinion.

I will say even before Putin issued that December List of Demands.


There was a moment that passed almost unnoticed unnoticed in early November.

When Biden issued a declaration.

Jointly with Ukraine, a kind of, it had some title like, you know, joint security, something or other and it reaffirmed Ukraine’s, right to see.


Membership in NATO.

Some people have called that the last straw for Putin.

I will say it was right after that, that the troop movements of his started to assume assume a form that led some people to say wait.


It’s looking like we really are going to see an invasion and again, I don’t know why Biden did that.

We knew it was to say the least a sensitive spot for Russia. but I will say just consistently, we have been almost indifferent to concerns about what’s going on in Putin’s head and and in Russian psychology, generally and if I just had to, you know, if you want my biggest, single kind of grievance about the blob, the people who populate the American foreign policy establishment, I think do not do a very good job of just putting themselves in the shoes of all the players around the Loeb including the leaders and the people they’re leading, you know, the the Grassroots sentiment and working to understand how they view the world and what the red lines for them are.


I can imagine some people listen to this and saying, Derek you and Bob, we’re just asking for appeasement.

You’re just asking for the u.s.

To essentially adopt the views of our Nemesis to give into our Nemesis to listen to autocrat, sand people who are against liberalism and democracy and do everything possible to appease them and give them what they want.


Just so they don’t cause any further military trouble.

What is your response to the appeasement charge?

The incident of appeasement that made that turn famous, which is, you know, Hitler in Munich and prime minister Chamberlain’s concession to Hitler consisted of letting Hitler take a chunk of Czechoslovakia and move his troops in.


That’s not what some of us were advocating in the way of a diplomatic Overture toward Russia before the invasion.

We were talking about something that would keep him from from putting any troops in Ukraine.


And now any realistic deal probably would involve his maintaining troops in Ukraine.

So that would be a much truer form of appeasement as a result of not reaching a diplomatic solution before the war, which again, I’m not sure was possible, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t try.


You know, we are a species with a whole Sure, for moral decision-making, and we have moral intuitions, about Justice and charity and so on which are great.


We’re definitely on balance, lucky to have them.

However, they were designed for a world that didn’t have nuclear weapons.


We are species evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment, basically, and, and that’s the reason I think we need to try to examine our moral reactions from as detached a perspective as possible.


Sometimes, including the very laudable, moral reaction of a kind of compassion that wants us to step in and help the ukrainians who definitely deserve help, you know, the the impulse to implement a no-fly zone is entirely laudable.


But if when you step back and look at the implications, you conclude that something designed to help thousands tens of thousands.

However, many people could imperil hundreds of millions billions of people, you know, I think you have to, to pay attention to that calculation and and it’s genuinely not easy and, you know, I have the same feelings as everyone else is, you know, it’s like, you know, I see a Russian tank blown up and I go great.


And then on reflection, I think two things, I think, you know, there was some poor sap in that tank who at age, 18 did what kids have done all over the world said, Mom.

I want to join the Army, you know.

And now he’s dead and and then the second thing is our, the all these weapons were sending in and I don’t know the answer to this.


Are they just going to lead to more suffering in the way they did in Syria.

Are they, are they going to lead to a lot more death and suffering without changing the outcome?

I don’t know the answer to that question.

It’s complicated.

I’m just saying it’s a question.


We don’t automatically ask Elves.

And and I think it’s the kind of question.

We need to try to ask ourselves.

We need to step back and do the larger moral calculus and minimize human suffering.

Well, that’s question for you Bob.


Would it be fair to say that at this moment?

The US and NATO face a menu of that options, but that a no-fly zone is simply the worst of those very bad options on the menu.

Yeah, I think a no-fly zone is just about the worst of all options.


I can think of and and sort of maybe sending NATO troops in and and increasing the chances of a conflict with Russia from like 99% which a no-fly zone gets you to 100%.

You know, it’s strange, I grew up in an era where there was such consciousness of the threat of nuclear annihilation.


Apocalypse that there was a certain kind of respect for being very very careful about increasing the chances by even a small amount.

And I think for whatever reason we’ve become a little less conscious of the threat, it hasn’t been very big, but I think we’re at a moment where it’s become non-trivial again, and a no-fly zone.


Would escalate it from non-trivial to say, Nificant Bob.

Thank you so much for joining us.

I really, really appreciate it.