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As the slaughter in Ukraine continues, the calls have grown for the West to do something to stop it – specifically, to exclude Russian aircraft from the skies over Ukraine, creating, as it is called, “a no-fly zone.”

The latest and most remarkable of these is an open letter from a list of American defence and foreign policy experts, including the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in Europe, the former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine, Russia and NATO, former top officials in the Defense and State departments, and so on.

Remarkable, because the idea has already been roundly rejected by every NATO head, and even more vociferously by a coterie of pundits online. The argument is simple. To enforce a no-fly zone, or NFZ, NATO would have to be prepared to shoot down any Russian aircraft that defied the order. It would also have to be prepared to take out Russian anti-aircraft batteries on the ground. That would risk igniting a wider war between Russia and NATO, and that would risk escalating to nuclear.

I imagine the former Supreme Commanders of This and Under Secretaries of That on the list are aware of this. So what goes on? Why would they make such a seemingly reckless proposal? Are they simply carried away with emotion, too distraught by the scenes of death and devastation in Ukraine to reason clearly? Or is there at least an argument to be made on their behalf?

I do not take their position to be that a nuclear holocaust would be an acceptable price to pay to prevent the deaths of Ukrainian civilians. Rather, it is that the risks of a nuclear exchange, if NATO intervenes, are small relative to the near certainty that many thousands of civilians will die if it does not. The two sides are divided, not by reason versus emotion, but by their assessments of the probabilities on either side of that barbarous equation.

Who’s right? It helps to be clear about the assumptions underlying each position. The anti-NFZ side assumes not only that there is a line beyond which NATO must not go in defending Ukraine, but that we are precisely at it – that supplying Ukraine with weapons, as we are doing now, is an acceptable risk, but enforcing a no-fly zone is not.

But we don’t actually know that. There is no rule book for these things. Maybe Vladimir Putin’s red line is direct involvement of NATO forces. But who’s to say he might not decide to draw the line somewhere else – at supplying weapons, say? Or at sanctions, which he has already described as being “akin to a declaration of war?” Suppose he did: would we withdraw them?

The point is not that we have to be willing to call his bluff. It is that we already are. Put it this way: Why hasn’t Mr. Putin drawn the line before this? Why wait until no-fly zones? Why not demand the West pay him $1-trillion, while he’s at it, or he blows the place up? Because he knows not to make a threat he’s not prepared to deliver on. He’s not the only one with nukes. It may be true, as some suggest, that he has a greater appetite for risk than we do. But unless the risk to him is zero – unless he knows with certainty we won’t retaliate – then he faces his own risk calculus.

The anti-NFZ faction not only assumes near infinite risks of action, but that the risks of inaction are, if not small, then at least known. But what if the slaughter escalates? What if we are looking, not at hundreds or thousands of dead civilians, but hundreds of thousands? Millions? After the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, this cannot be discounted.

For its part, the pro-NFZ position also depends on certain assumptions. It assumes, first, that Ukraine’s civilians could not be protected in other, less risky ways – by supplying Ukraine with fighter jets, for example – and second, that while Mr. Putin won’t escalate if we do intervene, he would if we don’t: emboldened by our weakness, etc. If we’re going to have to fight him anyway, runs the argument, we might as well do it now. But we don’t know that, and it’s a hell of a bet to place.

The better approach might be a strategy of gradualism, neither ruling out a no-fly zone nor ruling it in, but reserving the right to intervene in proportion to the gravity of the situation on the ground. Mr. Putin’s position is weakening by the day. What might not be possible today might be possible a week from now. In a game of nuclear poker, best to keep your cards close to your chest.

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