Russian jets flying over Crimea. Picture Credit: Sergei MalgavkoTASS via Getty Images.

Flying into folly

A no-fly zone in Ukraine would result in utter disaster

Artillery Row

Russia’s brutish invasion of Ukraine is the first major European war of the internet era. From the Urals to the Atlantic, the continent is connected by smartphones and social media. Even before President Putin began this criminal war of aggression, ordinary people from Stockholm to Seville were able to see amateur photographs, videos, TikTok recordings of Russian men and materiel massing at Ukraine’s Russian and Belarusian frontiers. Twitter users across Europe have been able to follow the invasion in near-real time; an airborne assault or a rocket attack can be seen around the world within an hour.

NATO jets would have to shoot down their Russian counterparts

As an aside, it is worth remembering that Ukraine is fighting a desperate information war. Its successful and undoubtedly necessary messaging is easily winning the hearts and minds of observers in the Western democracies. This is surely for the best, but presents us with dangers and difficult decisions down the road.

In the meantime, it is worth carefully keeping an eye on more official sources: the BBC seems to be having a good war so far, and regular Defence Intelligence updates from the MoD appear all the more credible given the events of recent weeks have unfolded as Anglo-American intelligence publicly predicted.

Twitter’s lifting of the fog-of-war, the democratisation of war information, has exposed worrying deficiencies in the Western expert and political classes. Joining the ranks of credulous journalists and fatuous, Brexit-addled QCs, now it is the turn of geopolitics wonks and military-minded MPs to voluntarily immolate their reputations on the altar of social media commentary.

First to cover herself in glory was the American deputy director of the Atlantic Council – an imaginatively named atlanticist think tank – Melinda Haring. Her Twitter feed shows her as one of the earliest proponents of a No-Fly Zone, calling for this drastic step on the second day of the invasion.

Haring showed no awareness of what this would actually involve. Her self-description as “trying to nudge history in the right direction” betrays a progressive conviction, at once childish and hubristic, that human events have some natural teleological trend. Confidence in her expertise is hardly reinforced by an earlier tweet describing neighbouring Poland as “a landlocked country” while expressing pleasant surprise at the quality of its sushi. 

It takes a few seconds for this to sink in: the deputy director of a prominent geopolitical think tank felt qualified to call for general war in Europe without having even a remotely accurate mental map of the Central European states we are committed to defend. Is this our expert class? Are these the people pretending to advise our decision-makers and educate our public? Are the brains behind the Atlantic alliance actually operating with a sub-Wikipedia knowledge of foreign countries within their remit? 

Poland is a NATO ally. It has had access to the Baltic since the resurrection of the Polish state in the aftermath of the First World War. The Second began as a conflict over the competing claims of Poland’s corridor to the sea and Nazi Germany’s desire for a land bridge to East Prussia. Poland has had a long Baltic coastline since 1945. The industrial disputes which fatally weakened Communism in Poland, and then across the Eastern Bloc, began in the shipyards of Polish Gdansk. GCSE students know all of this.

These gaffes are at least darkly funny. I have not been laughing at prominent British politicians calling for the imposition of No-Fly Zones. It is worth reminding ourselves of what No-Fly Zones actually involve. They are not a bureaucratic exercise in closing civilian airspace. They are not a courteous diplomatic request. They are an ultimatum as stark as those delivered by this country to German diplomats in 1914 and 1939. They are backed up by the threat of deadly violence. “Fly over Ukraine, Mr Putin, and we will shoot you down.” They are quite simply an act of war.

To enforce a No-Fly Zone, NATO jets would have to shoot down their Russian counterparts. Not only would the Russians fight back, they would almost certainly be forced to attempt to degrade our ability to fight an air war: there would likely be strikes on NATO airfields inside NATO countries. 

Our leaders must not start a catastrophic general war with a nuclear power

Put simply, the European democracies and their long-underfunded conventional militaries would find themselves at war with a nuclear-armed Great Power. NATO itself contains three such powers. We have already seen that Russia’s invasion tactics are changing – escalating in brutal intensity – after unanticipated setbacks on the ground in Ukraine. It would be suicidally reckless not to consider the dizzying possibility that an air war between the nuclear powers might rapidly spiral out of control.

David Davis MP was the first major figure I noticed making this bullishly belligerent demand. A former Cabinet minister and Privy Councillor, Davis has had a seat at the top decision-making table of this country. In the early hours of this morning, Tobias Ellwood MP, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, likewise called for the imposition of a No-Fly Zone. Horrifyingly, it looks like prominent defence-minded MPs are making off the cuff calls for direct military action against the Russian airforce. Thankfully, they are not in government. The Prime Minister, to his real credit, has so far been clear that it would be a perilous folly to take their reckless advice.

Even more terrifying was the interview given on Newsnight last night by General Sir Richard Barrons, former Assistant Chief of the General Staff. Sir Richard, calling for a No-Fly Zone, at least had the honesty directly to admit that it was a policy meaning war with Russia. More chilling was his assessment that the images of the indiscriminate slaughter of Ukrainian civilians we are about to see on our televisions and smartphones will decisively shift public opinion in favour of direct intervention. “Something must be done!” we will cry.  “Something” must not become “anything”.

This is not pacifism or appeasement. The United Kingdom should continue to arm Ukraine. We must continue to isolate Russia, and cut it off from the finance and materials that allow the grim fascist in the Kremlin to wage his murderous war of aggression. We must make crystal clear our commitment to defend Poland and the Baltic countries to the hilt. NATO must prepare to fight a defensive war if forced to do so. Our leaders must not start a catastrophic general war with a nuclear power in the skies above Ukraine out of embarrassment.

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