By advocating a No-Fly Zone in Ukraine, the commentariat is demanding that we roll the dice on nuclear war – the latest reminder of just how dangerous our warmongering media truly is.
It’s hard to watch the ongoing Russian onslaught in Ukraine without feeling a sense of helplessness. The images of the country’s cities reduced to rubble, civilians huddling in bomb shelters, and the grim statistics of those killed—at least 406 civilians so far—ticking up on international news sites understandably provoke calls that ‘something must be done’.
There are things to do. The government must instantly open the UK’s border to all Ukrainian refugees (all and any refugees wouldn’t hurt either); domestically there must be a push for the dirty money of Putin’s cronies to exposed and seized; and all solidarity should be shown with both the determined people of Ukraine defending their right to nationhood and the brave anti-war activists in Russia who are being locked up by the thousands but still keep up their opposition to Putin’s brutality. And it’s worth highlighting and calling for consequences for those politicians who have actually served to prop up and excuse Putin’s regime over the past two decades or so, too.
But should more be done militarily? There is very little appetite for direct military intervention in the post-Iraq War world. Perhaps noting this, a number of British commentators have in the past few days been touting the idea of a No-Fly Zone.
‘Pleased to see powerful voices joining my call for a humanitarian partial or total NO FLY ZONE,’ tweeted Tobias Ellwood, Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, on Tuesday morning, citing a call by retired US General Philip Breedlove for such an action. ‘What scale of war crimes, what numbers of civilian deaths must we witness—before NATO, the most powerful military alliance in the world, is tasked to intervene?’
No-Fly Zones involve the creation of a demilitarized air space above a territory. In practice, it means preventing aircraft—in this case, Russian jets—access to Ukrainian airspace through surveillance and military action. This can extend to pre-emptive strikes on airfields to prevent enemy aircraft from taking off.
No-Fly Zones have been used a number of times in past. One popular example of a supposed success story was the No-Fly Zone imposed by the US, UK, and (initially) France over Iraq’s northern Kurdish region in the ’90s. Coming in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s brutal genocide of the Kurds (which was at the time downplayed by those same countries), it prevented further air strikes on the territory and is cited as helping develop Kurdish autonomy and eventually the creation of the autonomous, and thoroughly pro-Western, Kurdistan Regional Government.
What is often forgotten when No-Fly Zones are raised, however, is that they are an act of war. The No-Fly Zone over Iraq, for example, resulted in large numbers of deaths, including those of civilians, and was against an army that was demoralised, crumbling, and weak after years of war.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki quite straightforwardly laid out what a No-Fly Zone really meant and why the US was reluctant to get involved in such an action. ‘It would essentially mean the US military would be shooting down planes, Russian planes. That is definitely escalatory. That would potentially put us in a place where we’re in a military conflict with Russia. That is not something the President wants to do.’
A No-Fly Zone would mean direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia—the most powerful military force in the world against the second most powerful. And it doesn’t take years of working in International Relations to realise this would be a bad thing.
For decades, the fear of confrontation between the US and the USSR meant whole generations accepted the risk of nuclear annihilation. From the sci-fi cinema and satire of the 1950s and ’60s to grim what-if productions like When the Wind Blows and Threads, through songs and literature that reminded the world of the destruction that took place in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, of course, the tireless efforts of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other anti-war movements, the idea of nuclear war was never far from the public mind, and the chance of humanity rapidly, suddenly ending life on Earth was understood to be a real possibility.
For many, especially those on Twitter, this has apparently been forgotten.
‘If people want to oppose a no-fly zone, fine. But understand that is an act of appeasement no different to our appeasement of Hitler in 1938. We are refusing to do what we know is morally right out of fear. We are prepared to let a free nation die to safeguard ourselves. What accounts for this attitude?’ tweeted Mail on Sunday commentator Dan Hodges.
Piers Morgan, no doubt in good faith as always, also made reference to ‘appeasement’ and suggested that the fear that Putin might ‘chuck his nukes around’ as ‘bullsh*t designed to scare everyone off’.
In response to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s confirmation that the UK would not be supporting a No-Fly Zone, one Ukrainian journalist criticised him at press conference on Tuesday, saying ‘people are desperately asking for the West to protect our sky [with] no-fly zone.’ ‘We are crying, we don’t know where to run,’ she said.
For some, it is this sense of helplessness: seeing the horror unfolding for Ukrainian citizens, fearing how far Putin might be willing to go, and wishing for military might be thrown in his way as a result. The brazenness with which the ‘Butcher of Grozny’ has been willing to assault civilian areas with weaponry prohibited under international law, such as cluster bombs, is clear to anyone who remembers Chechnya and Syria—and it is entirely understandable to want to protect civilians.
For another tranche of commentator, though, it’s about re-legitimising the idea of righteous military might and the West as the planet’s pre-eminent power. There are those who have never recovered from the backlash to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the failure to take military action in Syria, and are determined to find any excuse to reassert the status quo of the long ’90s, when the US and those in its orbit appeared unchallengeable.
None of this changes the basic fact that the US, the British prime minister, and the more cool-headed among our commentator class have realised: a No-Fly Zone means war between nuclear powered states.
Alex MacDonald is a reporter at Middle East Eye.