In the spring of 1991, having been driven from Kuwait but still in power in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein sent his remaining fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships to bomb the Kurds of northern Iraq. Civilians were dying; refugees were streaming over the mountains into Turkey. The United States and its allies responded by imposing something new in the history of human conflict. They called it a no-fly zone.
The administration of president George H.W. Bush was opposed to putting “boots on the ground” by invading and occupying an Arab country. (A decade later, president George W. Bush had other ideas.) But horrified by the sight of Kurds being massacred from the air, the Americans felt they had to do something.
They told the Iraqis that, if their aircraft flew north of the 36th parallel, they would be shot down. A similar no-fly zone was also imposed over southern Iraq.
Twenty years later, in 2011, a group of countries including Canada sent fighter jets to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, to prevent forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi from winning the First Libyan Civil War. The action ended in October of that year, after Gaddafi was overthrown.
For the past week, the question has been widely asked: Why isn’t NATO doing the same thing in Ukraine? Why won’t NATO “close the sky,” as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has begged it to do?
The short answer: nuclear weapons. Russia has the world’s largest arsenal of them, and we don’t want to start a nuclear war. As the old saw goes, the only thing that can guarantee that there will never be a World War IV is an atomic World War III.
The verb placed before the term “no-fly zone” is always “impose.” In the 1990s, it wasn’t particularly difficult for the massive military might of the American-led alliance to impose one on Iraq. It was a similar story in 2011 over Libya. Gaddafi’s forces succeeded in shooting down zero coalition aircraft. A no-fly zone over those countries was a low-cost and low-risk policy, at least for our side.
Russia is a rather different story. “Closing the sky” to Russian planes over Ukraine would mean being willing to shoot down Russian planes – and facing the likelihood of retaliatory Russian missile and air attacks against Central and Western Europe. It would mean expanding a war in Ukraine into a general European war. The side that felt it was losing would likely reach for nuclear weapons.
Having the bomb can make countries more cautious; it can also make them more reckless. Exhibit A for the latter is Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the start of his move on Ukraine, he made a great show of threatening to use atomic weapons, and placing his nuclear forces on alert. The Biden administration wisely declined to enter into a game of chicken, by refusing to escalate its level of nuclear alert, and even postponing a recent weapons test.
It’s a reminder of why the world, especially the Western alliance, is so worried about nuclear proliferation. Imagine how differently things would have gone if Saddam Hussein really had weapons of mass destruction.
It also underlines the concern about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. The Trump administration opposed a deal with Iran while the Biden administration has sought one; despite opposing tactics, preventing Iran from acquiring the bomb is a shared objective.
And one can see why the theocrats of Tehran would want nuclear weapons: They are the ultimate power.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was briefly the world’s third largest nuclear weapons state. It agreed to give up its weapons – to Russia, ironically. How different might things be today if Ukraine had retained those missiles and warheads? We’ll never know. It might have deterred Mr. Putin; it might have led to the world’s first nuclear war.
For now, the West must continue to support Ukraine by sending its armed forces as much conventional weaponry as we can, and quickly. And by ramping up sanctions, to squeeze Russia’s capacity to wage war.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy for millions of people. Let us not compound it into a danger to the lives of billions. Having painted himself into a corner, Mr. Putin has reason to threaten direct confrontation with the West. That is why NATO, while countering him, is being so careful to not indulge him.
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