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A Ukraine No-Fly Zone Could Start a NATO-Russia War. The West Has Other Options

The active duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings conducted an F-35A Combat Power Exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Jan. 6, 2020. The exercise, which was planned for months, demonstrated their ability to employ a large force of F-35As -- testing readiness in the areas of personnel accountability, aircraft generation, ground operations, flight operations, and combat capability against air and ground targets. A little more than four years after receiving their first combat-coded F35A Lightning II aircraft, Hill's fighter wings have achieved full warfighting capability. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

No No-Fly Zone? No Problem. NATO has other options to help Ukraine and push back against Russian aggression: Over 75 years ago, George Kennan described the DNA of Russian leaders as “neurotic” and embedded with an encompassing “sense of insecurity” and “instinctive fear of the outside world.”

Russian paranoia has not seemingly abated over decades. Putin and the Russian generals in his inner circle all seek nothing less than a deep strategic depth to shield Moscow, akin to the space held by the former Soviet Union. To attain this goal, the Gerasimov Doctrine calls for a modern hybrid form of total war, combining a broad range of military, economic, information, and cyber actions.

Not since the Munich Agreement of 1938 has the West faced such an adventuring, full-fledged military thug, the equivalent of Adolph Hitler. At Munich, the allies ceded the Sudetenland to Hitler.  The decision only emboldened Hitler to greater military adventures, and ultimately into World War II.

Appeasement or non-military half measures will only embolden Putin to push ahead. The inevitable next chapter—like WWII itself—will be that much more dangerous, destructive, and tragic when Putin makes yet more non-negotiable demands. See., e.g., possible assaults on Moldova, and later even on the NATO Baltic states, suggested by Russians’ insecure need for strategic depth.

Putin’s calculatedly deliberate vague threats of “untold consequences” should any democratic nations intervene in any way, seem to have successfully dissuaded European and U.S. leaders.  Unsure of how Putin might react to any even small interventions, Western leaders are frozen, and in that inaction, have emboldened Putin to even more aggressive criminal attacks each succeeding day.

Thus far, the NATO position has been that Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Intimidated Western nations use that technicality to express strong support for Ukraine while refusing to bolster Ukraine’s defense with their own troops in defense of democracy.

Yet Yugoslavia was not a NATO country when NATO intervened to stop genocide and humanitarian tragedy in progress. Kuwait was not a member of NATO when a coalition of NATO and other countries pulled together to defend sovereignty against a thuggish invasion. Libya was not a NATO member when NATO states, acting on behalf of the UN, defended Libyan citizens against the horrific targeting of civilian areas by an unbalanced leader.

One option promoted by Ukrainian President Zelensky and fashionable among media and activists is a no-fly zone enforced by NATO planes. But a no-fly zone would, as numerous leaders have argued, be a probable prescription for a direct air confrontation between NATO and Russian jets. Putin did not react severely when Turkish fighters shot down a Russian jet over their airspace near Syria, but a NATO challenge would undoubtedly draw a military response, with the possibility of a spiraling escalation where Putin feels driven to use nuclear or chemical weapons.

F-22 and F-35

Image: Creative Commons.

Ironically, the model for coming to the defense of Ukraine while maintaining public deniability can be taken from the pages of the Russian playbook itself. And democratic nations with sophisticated weaponry are particularly skilled in the small and clandestine warfare techniques which can turn the tide without risking major forces and openly confronting the Russian leader.  Among the vast options could be:

– Let “volunteers” without insignias—little gray men, to coin a phrase—join the fight, as has begun in small measures. Train them in Europe as a modern version of the international brigades which fought in the Spanish civil war, then send them in.

– Another version of little gray men, quietly and clandestinely insert specialized small tactical combat teams such as U.S Seal teams, British SAS, and French Foreign Legion to conduct activities in support of Ukraine forces. Behind the lines raids on logistics, assaults on command-and-control mobile units, missile sites, etc.

– Specialist cyber and tech units were inserted to disrupt Russian tactical communications.

– Mobile antiaircraft vehicles, more robust than the weaponry being provided now, unmarked or carrying Ukrainian markings, could be brought into Ukraine.

– Western drone units could be deployed inside Ukraine, joining Ukrainian air assets. Drones are easily supplied, so any drone losses could be put down as being Ukrainian.

– More aggressive, but done as a publicly declared peacekeeping action in defense of civilians against attacks from Russian territory under the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P), THAAD antimissile units could be moved into western Ukraine and put into use to defend against Russian missile barrages.

Many in the free world would like to see a more robust and less fearful defense of democracy, a calculated leadership bet that measured military support for Ukraine would not cause a major Russian escalation. And Russia has cried wolf so many times, Putin has so many times made baldly fictional claims to cover wanton war crimes, that Western allies can easily provide military assets while still projecting plausible explanations which make the efforts appear Ukrainian. Putin’s lying has been blatant, ironically setting the West up to obfuscate with more credibility.

In 480 BC, Spartans at Thermopylae fought heroically and tragically; the Ukrainian military is reenacting history’s story. The stand of the Ukrainians may join history’s most heroic legends when the history of the 21st century is written. Might the West find subtle ways to assist militarily?

Richard Sindelar, @FSOProf, a retired U.S. diplomat with three tours of duty in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now serves as Director of the Center for International Studies at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, where he teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy and international law, among others.

Written By

Richard Sindelar (bio), @FSOProf, a retired U.S. diplomat with three tours of duty in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now serves as Director of the Center for International Studies at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, where he teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy and international law, among others.



  1. yellowstoneuk

    March 5, 2022 at 6:53 pm

    Well written article, I had already been thinking the West should have been using some of the clandestine methods used by Putin in crimea. Thinking outside the box is the best approach, and I suspect the West has not been thinking what’s the next best option that could approach effectiveness of the air defence zone they don’t want to effect.
    The latest Russian losses I have found from two days ago would imply Russian deaths approaching 12,000 today. The phony Russian losses imply a wounded ratio of 3x deaths, so wounded could be 3x 12,000= 36,000. However in Iraq the usa had a ratio of deaths to wounded of 8x. I think it likely the Russian ratio is somewhere between 3x to 8x. The Russians may well be using mobile crematoria to hide the extent of losses.

  2. Commentar

    March 5, 2022 at 6:58 pm

    A nfz will entitle Russia to whitewash NATO air bases, using either conventional iskanders or nukes.

    Putin needs to protect his forces as well as the people of eastern ukraine, so nfz is a BIG RED LINE.

    Biden needs to know crossing big red lines represents a fatal move like a swimmer eagerly jumping off his boat and swimming in the water with the great whites around.

  3. Jacky

    March 5, 2022 at 7:07 pm

    Russia today is facing the greatest threat since the genghis of 1941 that tried to reach for Moscow but failed.

    Again, Russia is putting up a bold move to forestall another genghis.

    Genghis, when he’s acoming, never attacks alone by himself, he’s no Julius Caesar, he comes along with his sidekicks all ready for major bloodshed.

    Thus Putin must resist today’s genghis and his horde. Using nukes if necessary.

  4. yellowstoneuk

    March 5, 2022 at 7:23 pm

    I suspect the usa has a better outcome for military wounded than the russian. The ratio of 8x for usa is good and the implied Russian ratio of 3x is not good. Remember I extracted the ratio of 3x from the phony published Russian death/ wounded figures. The basic fact is the combined read and wounded figure would represent troops that would be removed from action.

  5. yellowstoneuk

    March 5, 2022 at 7:32 pm

    So Putin is to protect the people of East ukraine? He has a strange way of protecting the people of East ukraine, by shelling them. If that is protection, then they need a serious umbrella.
    Let’s look at the numbers, at best 4 million may be invited the tanks, but 40 million did not invite the tanks.
    Why have more than one million Ukrainians voted with there feet and left ukraine to get away from Putin’s beneficent shelling.

  6. yellowstoneuk

    March 5, 2022 at 7:47 pm

    I can prove that Putin must be on drugs. While on his drug induced hallucination, he accused ukraine of having a neo Nazi regime, while ignoring the fact that the Ukrainian president is jewish. Was Hitler jewish?, No because he would have had to put himself into one of his own concentration camps.
    So, since a neo Nazi regime cannot exist with a JEWISH president, then Putin has invented a lie to invade the borders of a sovereign ukraine. This action coming from the same territorial acquisition country that still holds onto the northern Japanese islands. Russia has a habit of invading smaller countries and staying there, unlike the usa, which gave back Japanese islands, despite heavy casualties in the second world war.
    Don’t worry boris, your mobile crematorium can hide the 12,000 dead in Ukraine. The
    People don’t realise just how tiny the Russian economy, so much that the vast USA economy rescued the russians in the second world war.

  7. yellowstoneuk

    March 5, 2022 at 7:55 pm

    If the russians are so worried about Genghis, I find it strange the russians are shelling ukraine cities. Do the russians think that Genghis Khan is in the ukraine cities?
    There is tv footage of a Ukrainian man crying over his burning house, did the russians think Genghis was in the Ukrainians private house?
    The way this is going the russians will be checking under there bed at night, in case, Genghis is hiding under the bed!

  8. Slack

    March 5, 2022 at 11:17 pm

    Biden is a fool, a big big really really big big fool, thinking that his moves in europe will lead him to a future nobel peace prize like obama’s. Obama was the puppeteers’ house servant, nothing more.

    Biden is aware of the costs of his actions, but right now, ordinary ukranians are already paying costs. Later, US companies will pay theirs as well, and haitians scrambling to get into the US will pay theirs, too.

    Thanks, biden. As for that nobel, well, get it in the afterlife, or in the afterworld. Bye, bye, 2024.

  9. Jacky

    March 5, 2022 at 11:23 pm

    Russia must go all out and seize eastern ukraine, the area east of the dnipro river.

    This will br a lesson to the fascists and banderites. When you start something stupid, prepare to lose a lot.

    But in the meantime, russia must prep its nuke strike force. We all know how sneaky genghis and his sidekicks are.

  10. Jimmy John Doe

    March 5, 2022 at 11:30 pm

    Nobody worth his/ her salt, and no citizenry worth its mettle should permit an old man to hold the top executive political office.

    An old man like biden is alright to fill a ceremonial post, but not the office of the presidency of the united states. Really gone bonkers!

    If dems seriously wanted old man for the oval office, they should have chosen BERNIE SANDERS! What the heck.

  11. Commentar

    March 6, 2022 at 12:45 am

    Biden’s antics in Europe is like a giant warning flare to anyone who’s got eyes peeled.

    This warning is that the new genghis of humanity is totally unbridled, truly unfettered, uncontrolled and utterly lawless.

    Nations must arm themselves to the teeth, and if have nukes, multiply their numbers and get the latest nuke launchers.

  12. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 6, 2022 at 12:54 am

    How would this go?

    The West identifies a personage within the Russian regime, not a Putin puppet or proxy, who is known to be more moderate and sensible.

    Then make it clear that further negotiations and dialogue for cease fire and diplomatic resolution go only through that person; that the West will no longer negotiate with Putin nor heed his remarks.

    And keep pushing hard for both of those. That person. Dialogue.

    Ceasefire may never come, so why suggest this?

    Firstly, it clearly expresses that the West does not wish for further war and certainly not an escalation of war.

    But what if it also achieves this:

    That knowledge of the West’s position becomes common knowledge within the Russian population. This says “Vladimir Putin is no longer trusted.”

    Putin may well rail against such a position, declaring himself the head of state. Which only cememnts the message deeper and stronger within the Russian public, and hierarchy, and military.

    The West wants peace, wants a resolution, and Putin is no longer capable of delivering it. That the West believes someone else within the Russian regime can achieve this resolution.

    This puts the national blowtorch on Putin.

    And it puts him in the regime’s spotlight as both untrustworthy, incapable, and de-powered in the minds of the world. He is no longer ‘the man’.

    It isolates – and removes – Putin from the power of resolution.

    This means, known worldwide, and more importantly within Russia, that any further bloodshed, especially, in this strategy, of Russian soldiers, is entirely — and unnecessarily — Putin’s fault.

    Ceasefire and resolution awaits. But it can only be made through this (identified) person.

    Another result: it will anger Putin and put the war at risk of escalation as he attempts to exhibit his personal power — but surely anything, anything, the West does not is going to do that anyway.

    Have a think.

    Publicly – worldwide and within the Russian population, military, and within its regime – isolate and remove Putin from ceasefire dialogue.

  13. Jacky

    March 6, 2022 at 5:00 am

    After a generation or so of busily whacking lands tagged as targets in war on terror, the great conquistor is after bigger fish.

    The new fish, or bogeymen, or pacing competitors, or peer rivals or whatever, must first be trapped, then stunned with sanctions and finally destroyed by NFZs and NSZs.

  14. Commentar

    March 6, 2022 at 5:12 am

    A famous man once said: “The imperialists are very arrogant. They will behave unreasonably at every turn. If they suddenly became reasonable, it’s because they had no choice.”

    Today, that keen observation still rings true, even after 70 years. After seventy years today, the imperialist still hasn’t shown any wish to be reasonable.

    The result – the ukraine war. Russia needs to bring the war to a successful conclusion to compel the imperialist to behave with reason and with mutual respect and common sense.

  15. Slack

    March 6, 2022 at 6:02 am

    NATO is an anachronistic holdover from the cold war, a period when politicians, generals, warmongers and fearmongers held the general public hostage by hollering about ‘gaps’ and nuclear annihilation at the next bend or next turn if the gaps weren’t addressed.

    Today, NATO still exists, even though ‘gaps’ are considered flintstone-era news items.

    Why’s this caveman mentality still with us today?

    Why NATO still needed? To protect humanity from its own fears? To worship it as new age god, the all-knowing god of wise banderitites !

  16. Alex

    March 6, 2022 at 11:51 am

    No-fly zone over Ukraine = World War III. World War III = Britain at the bottom of the ocean and the Canada-Mexico Strait.

  17. TrustbutVerify

    March 6, 2022 at 12:29 pm

    Russian trolls are hilarious! Do you think anyone sees Russia as “great white sharks” after the last 10 days? More like the Gang that Can’t Shoot Straight!

    Hey, here’s an idea…since Belarus enabled this invasion, let’s attack them like Putin did Ukraine! No reason for Putin to confront us, right, as Belarus is its own country and all. If he does, we’ll threaten to Nuke him!

    Sounds fair, right?

  18. Chris

    March 6, 2022 at 8:17 pm

    Hey “Jacky”… go tell your boss Putin to quit smoking dope. Russia wasn’t being threatened by ANYONE. So take your Putin propaganda and put it where the sun doesn’t shine.

  19. TellTheTruth-2

    March 6, 2022 at 11:18 pm

    With the US doing 95% of the fighting? How insane is that? Ukraine became a US CREATED problem in 2014 when warmonger neoCONs, Obama/Biden, Hillary, McCain, Victoria, F__k the EU, Nuland and George, Color Revolution, Soros ATTACKED and OVERTHREW the pro Putin Ukraine Government. Based on that, if President Putin (a Christian) takes Ukraine back to prevent NATO nuclear weapons from being deployed in Ukraine, it should be seen by Americans who KNOW HISTORY as a rejection of the neoCON war mongers.

    The US neoCONs overthrew Ukraine’s government in 2014 KNOWING the end result would be the destruction of Ukraine with thousands killed. We need to round up all the neoCONs, charge them with war crimes, convict them, and dispatch their souls to God for Judgement.

  20. Alex

    March 7, 2022 at 6:27 am

    It is already known all over the world: if someone is against Nazism and supports a special military operation of Russia, then the Nazis start shouting: “trolls, trolls, trolls …”. Clones.

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