To fly or not to fly, that is the ridiculously dangerous question the world is asking when it comes to Russia

We are hesitant to target Russia’s oil industry or to eject all Russian banks from international transactions for fear of negative global impacts, and yet we’re implementing policies and considering others that could result in downing Russian planes and starting a war directly with Russia, which would be the worst global impact imaginable.

On Tuesday, President Biden announced that Russian planes would be barred from US airspace during his first State of the Union address.  “Tonight I’m announcing that we will join our allies in closing off American air space to all Russian flights, further isolating Russia and adding additional squeeze on their economy,” the President said. The move follows Canada and the European Union, and is widely seen as part of our increasing push to get tough on Russia as we present a united front with our key allies.  The more aggressive stance on Russia is then laundered into a broader championing of democracy around the globe, with Joe Biden as the defender of the faith. CNN’s Van Jones put it this way, “The real Joe Biden is back. Tonight, he reminded us why America picked a tried-and-true defender of democracy — at home and abroad — to lead us through these tough times.”  We saw a “competent, seasoned and experienced foreign policy hand we voted for. He has expertly weaved a response to the most consequential foreign policy moment in years.”  Of course, Mr. Jones fails to mention the President and the broader foreign policy establishments’ impotent failure to prevent the invasion in the first place, nor do they stop to consider the potential impacts of these red line policies.

For example, Russia violated the Canadian ban almost immediately after it was announced.  Russian Aeroflot Flight 111 briefly passed into Canadian airspace last Sunday.  “We are aware that Aeroflot Flight 111 violated the prohibition put in place earlier today on Russian flights using Canadian airspace,” Transport Canada explained in a tweet.  They are currently “reviewing,” the issue, but otherwise they “will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action and other measures to prevent future violations.”  Perhaps needless to say, what constitutes “appropriate enforcement action” is left entirely unclear.  Are we really going to shoot down a Russian passenger plane and potentially kill hundreds of civilians onboard if necessary?  I would think not.  This effectively reduces our enforcement mechanisms to threats to issue even more sanctions or send strongly worded letters, while creating potential situations between Russian and non-Russian aircraft that could either accidentally or intentionally result in an international incident that could lead to war.  As we should have learned in Syria when then President Barack Obama insisted the use of chemical weapons would prompt a military response only to withdraw the threat after such weapons were used, you don’t draw red lines you aren’t willing to enforce.  If Russia flouts this new policy, which they appear ready to do, we will look weak if we don’t respond forcibly, which we might not be willing to do for obvious reasons.  In that case, it’s better not to have the policy at all unless, as the old saying goes, you are ready to put your money where your mouth is.

Incredibly, banning Russian planes from US airspace is the least risky of the no-fly zone approaches being offered.  It’s one thing to restrict Russian planes from our airspace when we certainly have the right to do so, even if it is more bluster than truth given our lack of means to enforce it and assuming we don’t actually shoot down a Russian passenger aircraft.  The risk of an all out war remains relatively low.  We are likely simply to look weak and ineffective.  The same, however, certainly cannot be said for enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and yet there is a growing chorus of supposedly respectable people that want to do precisely that. The anti-Trump Republican and therefore popular in establishment circles Congressman Adam Kinzinger, took the lead in this regard, tweeting last week, “1) The fate of #Ukraine is being decided tonight, but also the fate of the west. Declare a #NoFlyZone over Ukraine at the invitation of their sovereign govt. Disrupt Russias air ops to give the heroic Ukrainians a fair fight.  It’s now, or later.  2) History teaches that taking a stand is inevitable and gets more costly with time.  We own the skies, Russia cannot hold a candle to our Air power.  Do this.  Putin is too dangerous to hope he is satisfied with ‘just Ukraine.’”  This is a truly incredible formulation:  President Putin is too dangerous to be satisfied with Ukraine, so we should shoot down his planes.  Nor is Representative Kinzinger alone in pushing for this drastic action, the United Kingdom’s Defense Minister has also seemingly endorsed the idea.

Fortunately, saner minds are currently prevailing and, at least for now, a no-fly zone over Ukraine enforced by either NATO or the US military appears to be beyond the realm of reasonableness, at least for now. Press Secretary Jen Psaki accurately described the situation when asked about it by a reporter earlier this week.  “Well, here’s what important for everybody to know about a no-fly zone: What that would require is implementation by the U.S. military. It would essentially mean the U.S. military would be shooting down planes – Russian planes. That is definitely escalatory. That would potentially put us into a place where we’re in a military conflict with Russia. That is not something the president wants to do.”  Even so, she still refused to rule out, saying only that those “are all the reasons why that’s not a good idea.”  This is an understatement as Ms. Psaki gets most of it right:  A no-fly zone over Ukraine would put US and NATO aircraft in direct conflict with Russian aircraft.  To enforce such a thing, we would need to be willing to shoot Russian planes down, a declaration of war against a nuclear power if ever there was one. It is impossible to see how a no-fly zone like this ends without either going to war with Russia, or merely issuing it and hoping the Russians comply of their own free will.

That, of course, defeats the purpose of the no fly zone entirely.  This logic isn’t difficult to follow, nor does it require any sophisticated understanding of foreign affairs.  Congressman Kinzinger and others are surely aware of the danger, or at least they should be, and yet they seem to think we continue blithely marching to the brink of war.  It also remains an open question as to how much this pressure will build as Russia gets increasingly aggressive against the Ukrainians who are refusing to give up their country without a wicked fight.  War crimes have already been committed.  Russian bombing of civilian centers is rapidly intensifying, even attacking nuclear power plants and risking potential fall out.  The Russians have only taken one major city so far, and will need a monstrous show of force in the near future to avoid a prolonged engagement.  President Putin has already said he has no plans to relent, even in the face of the current sanctions which the establishment claims are effective though at what is not clear.  We know this because French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to his Russian counterpart earlier this week.  “This conversation is unfortunately an occasion to hear that President Putin will continue military interventions and to go all the way…Without making a prediction, we should expect the worst is yet to come. The (French) president said so yesterday as well. There is nothing in what Putin said today that should reassure us,” a source in the French government explained.  The question becomes:  How much pressure can American and European leadership take when images of civilian atrocities are broadcast nightly on the news and streaming daily through our computers?

Ultimately, these no-fly zone recommendations can be seen as part of a broader push to get more aggressive to end the conflict and influence Russia.  Ben Wittes, a former adviser to President Barack Obama and member of the Brookings Institution insists that our plan must be “Regime Change:  Russia.”  Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, concurs, getting excited “now the conversation has shifted to include the possibility of desired regime change in Russia.”  Yes, we now have supposedly smart people, the very adults in the room President Biden promised, openly advocating removing the authoritarian dictator of one of the world’s most heavily armed nuclear powers.  What could go wrong, especially considering that President Putin has already announced that their nuclear arsenal is on high alert and these same “adults in the room” are simultaneously claiming that Putin himself has gone mad?

In other words, the underlying goal of all this is to intentionally provoke a mad man with potential military action while he has his finger on the nuclear button.  This gets even more bizarre when we are simultaneously being told that we cannot target the Russian energy industry for fears it might cause price increases and supply chain disruptions that could affect the entire global economy.  The result is the untenable situation where we are considering options that might cause a war while still buying oil from the country we might go to war with.  I’m not sure anything like this has occurred in recent memory, much less in the history of the United States.  Yet, when asked about whether we might consider stopping our Russian oil purchases, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said,  “Well, what we’re doing, Norah, across the board is making sure we inflict maximum pain on Russia for what President Putin has done while minimizing any of the pain to us.  We’re in full coordination with other countries both consumers and producers alike, to minimize any impact this may have on energy prices and gasoline.”  Ms. Psaki said something similar, talking about how they are maximizing impact on Russia while minimizing impact on the rest of the world, what I have called the “free lunch” strategy.

In other words, on one hand we are considering risky, potentially aggressive options at varying levels that might bring about a direct military conflict with Russia.  On the other, we are unwilling to risk a short term increase in energy prices.  Does that make any sense to anyone?


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