Why a No-Fly-Zone would be the biggest gift to Putin, and why Zelenskyy keeps asking for it [Linkpost and commentary]

[Epistemic status: My best analysis from purely public sources on a constantly changing conflict in an actively adversarial epistemic environment. I have no special knowledge or expertise.]

This is a linkpost for this post by Justin Bronk, a research fellow at RUSI, a British conflict analysis think-tank. ~7 minute read. It is some of the most clearheaded and enlightening analysis I have seen so far of the current geopolitical situation in regards to Ukraine and the line the West is walking. The first part talks about the military arguments, and is more detailed but mostly in line with the mainstream commentary; it’s the second part, on the political arguments, that is really insightful. The article was also summarized nicely by Justin in this interview, starting at 40:27, running about 9 minutes. The first part of the interview is great too.

“A NFZ [No-Fly-Zone] would gift Putin with a retroactive justification for the invasion by giving him the ‘NATO intervention’ which Kremlin propaganda has consistently sought to claim it was pre-empting by invading Ukraine. It would give the Russian Army a military opponent that could more credibly be used to explain away its heavy losses and lacklustre performance against its far smaller neighbour. It would also generate a rally-behind-the-flag effect which would stifle domestic protests, provide an excuse for even greater repressive brutality in Russia and thereby prolong the Russian state’s ability to continue active hostilities. In short, an NFZ could save Putin’s regime from a disaster that currently threatens to end it.”

Everyone wants to help Ukraine. No one wants WW3. As a practical military matter an NFZ is simply a euphemism for war with Russia, both Biden and Stoltenberg and Putin have consistently been crystal clear on this, which makes it self-fulfilling. If NATO/​US decides to enter the war, it might as well just do it properly, rather than hobbling itself to only engage air-targets. But as things are currently going, this isn’t even the greatest threat to Ukraine. Russia doesn’t have air-superiority. Most of the heavy weapons we are seeing are rockets and artillery, not from aircraft. The Russian forces have proved unable to coordinate close-air-support for it’s ground forces. Yet enforcing an NFZ would require a massive, aggressive operation, including taking out SAM installations far into Russian and Belarusian territory. Only the US has the power to do this. And no matter how that would be played politically, be it a NATO Article 5 after some stray rocket, or a UN resolution (that Russia would veto) or anything else, the end result that everyone would see, in every news feed the world over, would be the US fighting Russia. And suddenly Putin would be proven right about all his talk of the west being a threat to Russian security, or at least right enough to rally support at home, and probably support from China, as well as motivating him to declare martial law and mobilize all Russian reserves; and on the other side, the unity of the rest of the world would most likely shatter, countries like Sweden and Switzerland who currently wholeheartedly support the effort to help Ukraine would get cold feet and protest. Right now, everyone is clearly seeing a bully committing atrocities. In that case, everyone would see two superpowers at war.

Whereas currently, Putin is continuing to dig his own grave at an astonishing rate.

“Never Interrupt Your Enemy When He Is Making A Mistake” -Sun Tzu

The tragedy of course, is all the other lives he is taking down with him.

So, why does Zelenskyy keep asking for a No-FLy-Zone? Surely, he knows that a No-Fly-Zone is both untenable militarily, and impossible politically. Everyone has been explaining it for weeks now. Yet he keeps asking it, loudly and persistently.

Of course, for Ukraine the war is already here, whether or not it will be called WW3 in the history books, so in that regard he has everything to gain and nothing to lose from draging NATO/​US into the war. (Except that WW3 would presumably be vastly more destructive, especially for Ukraine if it becomes it’s first/​major battleground. But the logic still holds.)

Yet he isn’t asking NATO to send troops, or bomb Moscow, or even to shoot down Russian planes; He asks specifically for the No-Fly-Zone. Repeatedly and loudly and consistently. It’s a vague but plausible-sounding request, abstract enough and hard enough to understand and far-mode enough that lots of people who wouldn’t call for WW3 will rally around this one, oddly specific, completely misplaced strategy as their rallying cry. Random refugees and protesters all over the world has taken up the cry. I think the point is specifically what Zvi brought up in his recent analysis: To have the masses call for something the leaders of the west can’t and won’t do, meaning 1; that they have to scramble to do everything else that they can do to compensate and still be seen to “do everything we can”, and 2; their own voters are giving them all the political leverage they need to pull it off, both domestically and geopolitically. I don’t know if Zelenskyy expects to ever get that one specific thing, but he’s here to win the war, not to “close the skies” specifically.

Idk, just a thought.

This is only my take, apply salt as needed. I am but a lone keyboard warrior in a big big sea of history, propaganda and geopolitics.

(While writing this I couldn’t make up my mind whether people would think of the title as click-bait. I still can’t. Please let me know what you think.)
(Edit for spelling)