The Problem With the Debate Over Helping Ukraine

Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, explains why discussions about a no-fly zone over Ukraine are not framed in the right way.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Then-NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (left) speaks with then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (right) and then-U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder in Istanbul on Feb 5, 2010.
Then-NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (left) speaks with then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (right) and then-U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder in Istanbul on Feb 5, 2010.
Then-NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (left) speaks with then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (right) and then-U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder in Istanbul on Feb 5, 2010. Murad Sezer/Reuters

On March 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the U.S. Congress virtually from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, invoking memories of Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as he appealed for more U.S. assistance in the face of a continued Russian assault. Among his specific requests, Zelensky repeated his call for a NATO-backed “no-fly zone” over Ukrainian airspace.

Why is a no-fly zone an unpalatable idea for Western leaders? The answer may seem obvious: Enforcing such a move would essentially involve a commitment to shoot down enemy incursions, bringing NATO directly into the fight against a nuclear-armed Russia. Yet calls for a no-fly zone endure.

To understand more about the stakes and decision-making involved, FP spoke with Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO between 2009 and 2013. Daalder is currently the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The conversation was conducted as part of FP Live, Foreign Policy’s forum for live journalism, on March 14. FP subscribers can watch a recording of the full conversation here. What follows is an edited excerpt from that discussion.

On March 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the U.S. Congress virtually from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, invoking memories of Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as he appealed for more U.S. assistance in the face of a continued Russian assault. Among his specific requests, Zelensky repeated his call for a NATO-backed “no-fly zone” over Ukrainian airspace.

Why is a no-fly zone an unpalatable idea for Western leaders? The answer may seem obvious: Enforcing such a move would essentially involve a commitment to shoot down enemy incursions, bringing NATO directly into the fight against a nuclear-armed Russia. Yet calls for a no-fly zone endure.

To understand more about the stakes and decision-making involved, FP spoke with Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO between 2009 and 2013. Daalder is currently the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The conversation was conducted as part of FP Live, Foreign Policy’s forum for live journalism, on March 14. FP subscribers can watch a recording of the full conversation here. What follows is an edited excerpt from that discussion.

Ravi Agrawal: Let’s just start with the here and now as Russian forces continue to inch closer to Kyiv. What’s your sense of where the conflict stands, and how long do you think Ukraine can hold out?

Ivo Daalder: The conflict clearly hasn’t gone in the way that Russia suspected it would go. They thought this was going to be over in a few days, that they would be greeted like liberators, and that this will be a cakewalk. We’ve been there before. In 2003, we thought the same thing in Iraq. Turns out that when you invade a neighboring country, that neighboring country tends to be more than willing to defend itself. And Ukraine has been preparing for the last eight years for exactly this war, and it’s giving the Russians a big fight. The reality, however, is Russia’s militarily stronger and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, after a few days of having to come to terms with the fact that his initial plan wasn’t going to work, has resorted to the same kinds of ways of using force that he’s done in the past, and he is attacking cities brutally. Civilians and military targets are indistinguishable. He’s going after hospitals, as we saw in Mariupol and other places in a horrific sense. And my sense is that it’s going to continue a while, but in time, he ought to be able to take a good part of Ukraine. The question, then, is it’s one thing to take it over. It’s another thing whether you [can] control it. I think we’re in for a long-term, bloody insurgency inside Ukraine until and unless there is some diplomatic way out.

RA: And let’s hope there is. I want to bring in the question of no-fly zones, and I know that there are strong voices on either end of this debate. Several foreign-policy experts, including U.S. military leaders and defense officials, have signed an open letter to the Biden administration urging NATO and the United States to impose one. On the other hand, the United States and many of its NATO allies have repeatedly said “no way”: A no-fly zone over Ukraine would bring about a direct conflict with Russia. You’re quite vocally in the second camp, and you’ve been involved in these discussions before—most notably in Libya. So explain to us why this discussion isn’t going anywhere and why a no-fly zone is not a good idea.

ID: I think you need to look at the larger context within which this is taking place. The United States and its NATO allies made a number of important decisions that have provided the context for what’s happening.

Number one: They made a decision that while Ukraine at some point might become … a member of NATO, that point wasn’t now. It’s an explicit decision by NATO not to make Ukraine a member of NATO.

The second big decision was because it’s not a member of NATO, the United States and NATO countries are not going to defend Ukraine either before or during the conflict, and it’s been very clear that the decision has been made to [exclude] direct military involvement by the United States. And NATO’s [involvement] is not on the cards. So once you’ve made that decision, the question is what then can you do to help the Ukrainians defend themselves? And clearly, Europe and the United States have said, “Well, we will provide them with as much capability and equipment and perhaps even intelligence in order for them to fight their own fight. But we, as NATO countries, are not going to be directly involved.” A no-fly zone would involve NATO’s aircraft flown by NATO pilots in the battle space over Ukraine. If they’re not over Ukraine, then it’s really not a no-fly zone.

And then the question becomes OK, if you have your pilots and aircraft flying there, what happens when there is a Russian airplane in that space? Do you let it fly in, in which case there is no no-fly zone? Do you only attack it if you get attacked, in which case as long as they don’t attack you, there is no no-fly zone? Do you attack that aircraft before it attacks you or before it is able to drop any missiles or bombs? In which case, you’re in a direct military confrontation. And so I think the question is not do we have a no-fly zone or not. The question is: Are we willing and prepared to help Ukraine by directly engaging in military confrontation with Russia? So far, the answer is no. A no-fly zone raises that question in a different way. And if we’re not going to be directly involved, then we shouldn’t be flying there. If we are going to be directly involved, then the question is: Is a no-fly zone the best way to do that?

I would argue if you want to help the Ukrainians, then let’s have a very serious discussion about whether you’re prepared to do that by going to war in Russia. If the answer is no, then you can’t be in favor of a no-fly zone.

RA: The interesting thing here, given what you’re saying, is that it’s almost as if the decision to get involved or not is a black and white one, a yes or no one. But another way of looking at it is that it’s quite fuzzy. Because there is a chance that for all that the West is doing—and let’s face it, the sanctions are a form of economic warfare; arming Ukrainians is a form of being involved in warfare—Putin sees these actions as an act of war. And then, in a sense, the West has crossed that line.

ID: Well, he may see it as such, in which case, he will have to decide what to do about it. Presumably, he would have to attack us. The onus, therefore, of escalation is on him, not on us. If we take that next step of direct military engagement by our pilots or our capabilities against Russian forces, which a no-fly zone does, then we are the ones who are escalating that conflict.

I do think there is a distinction between providing Ukraine with the means to defend itself, which is the provision of armaments, and directly assisting Ukraine in the capacity of defending itself. Both are equally legal, by the way, under Article 5 of the U.N. Charter. Ukraine has a right to self-defense. And if it asked to get folks to help it, it can do so as well. But that’s where the line is now.

RA: Assuming, as you’ve been describing, that this war plays out for several weeks, months, with Russia perhaps even taking Kyiv, and Ukraine is stuck in a long insurgency and a civil war, the question then—and it’s worth thinking about this now even though we’re in the fog of war—is what the longer-term plan should be. You argued in Foreign Affairs last week for the return of containment, a reference to [U.S. diplomat] George Kennan’s strategy that was employed throughout the Cold War. Talk us through how such a plan would work and why it’s important to consider it at this point.

ID: Up to this point—and I don’t see this changing any time soon in the future—the United States and our allies in NATO and indeed in the West have decided that we’re not going to confront Russia directly and militarily in the defense of Ukraine. And so, then the question is: What else can you do? Ultimately, I see what happened on Feb. 24 as historically significant. Russia has now made clear that it is unalterably opposed not just to Ukraine but to the post-Cold War European security order and wants to reverse it. We need to make sure that [Russia] does not succeed. We can do that through direct military confrontation, but the costs of that are too high, including the possibility of a nuclear war. So what else can we do?

Containment is the way we dealt with that. After the end of World War II, we had a policy of counterforce to pressure the then-Soviet Union, and we would now pressure Russia economically, militarily, and politically [with it]. Militarily, it would mean building up our capabilities in order to make sure that even if we’re not prepared to defend Ukraine, we are prepared to defend every inch of NATO territory. As [U.S. President Joe] Biden has said, that means a fundamental rethink about our posture, particularly in Eastern Europe, and build it up.

Secondly, it would mean continuing the economic pressure on Russia and an actual decoupling of the Russian economy from the global economy that is led by Western countries. We’re a long way along that path already. We’ve done pretty much everything we can on the financial side. There’s more we could do on the energy side, but it has implications for our own domestic economies and the political willingness to continue this strategy.

And then [there’s] a policy of political isolation that’s already happening with regard to sports and culture and what we’re doing in the [United Nations]. But it also involves active diplomacy to work with countries to let them know sitting on the fence isn’t really an option here. It’s not just about oil. It’s about political isolation and letting people in New Delhi and Riyadh and Beijing and other places know that if you side with the Russians, there are consequences to that.

Ultimately, the goal of this policy is the same as we had during the Cold War, which is that the internal tension within Russian society will lead to a change in regime. It did happen to take 40 years in the case of the Cold War. I don’t think it’s going to take four to 40 years in this case as long as we’re united, as long as we’re strong. I see that, in a matter of years, the consequences will be severe for Putin and Putinism. And that ought to be our fundamental focus.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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