Image Credit: Netherlands Protest, Shutterstock / Dutchmen Photography
That Vladimir Putin opened a war against the Western world should be clear to anyone who listened to his speech on February 24, 2022. It took him half an hour of ranting against the West and the United States before he even evokes Ukraine.
In response, the West has so far imposed sanctions on Russia after Putin attacked Ukraine, and we are sending weapons to the brave defenders of that country. We simply choose the means by which to engage in the conflict, not whether we are involved. Putin imposed this war on us – and we have already are inside.
The question before us now is simple but weighty: how should we respond to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s repeated demands to institute a no-fly zone over Ukraine?
I think there are good reasons why we should consider his request.
The first is to avoid falling into a trap that will remind a European historian of the scenario that played out for eight months after September 1939, when no one in the West after the German invasion of Poland wanted to “die for Danzig”. – the so-called “funny war”, called in English the “phony war”.
The French and British officially acknowledged that Germany was waging war on the Western powers when Hitler attacked Poland, and yet the French army stood idly by on the Third Reich’s undefended western border while the Wehrmacht, assisted by Stalin’s Red Army, dismembered Poland. . But this “Sitzkrieg” (as the British press called it) was not just bogus, it was a big mistake.
For if Western leaders had chosen to risk “dying for Danzig”, the Franco-British push against the Third Reich would most likely have ended the war within three or four weeks – largely because the German generals, stunned by Hitler’s recklessness, would have deposed him.
Instead, because it seemed prudent at the time in London and Paris to defend Western democracy to the last Pole, playing a waiting game as a massacre unfolded, World War II lasted six years and claimed 70 million lives. Shouldn’t this serve as a warning that similarly defending the West in 2022 to the last Ukrainian could be not only immoral, but reckless – and a losing strategy in response to Putin’s aggression?
The counter-argument is that we should refrain from imposing a no-fly zone because Putin has threatened anyone who interferes with his war on Ukraine with nuclear retaliation.
But isn’t Putin’s nuclear blackmail precisely why we should impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine? Or, how could we have any confidence that we would defend ourselves – that the territory of NATO countries would be defended against Russian attack – if Putin, as he is certain to do, lifts the threat of nuclear retaliation to the case we would put up resistance? Why would we deny him the ability to bomb civilians in Warsaw or Riga, or for that matter in Berlin? Because of a piece of paper, signed by all NATO members, called “Article 5”?
Are we going to “die for Article 5” with more enthusiasm than our ancestors who refused to “die for Danzig”? Try to persuade Putin that this is so, after we surrendered to his nuclear blackmail and let him bomb Mariupol, Kharkiv, Kyiv and many other Ukrainian cities into oblivion.
With regard to nuclear blackmail, it should be remembered that we also have nuclear weapons. And therefore, the effectiveness of Putin’s threat depends on his ability to persuade us that he and the Russian elite – even a tyrant does not wage war alone, without a retinue of enablers – have a death wish.
Without speculating on the contents of Putin’s head, and judging only by empirically verifiable evidence, we can safely surmise that he would much rather stay alive and healthy – just note the size of the table on which he entertains himself during the COVID-19 pandemic. As for the depth of death wishes among Putin’s enablers, it can be gauged with good accuracy by inspecting the fittings of various yachts and villas belonging to Russian billionaires, which have just been seized by Western authorities.
An autocrat who comes out of nowhere and stays in power through rigged elections, has no legitimacy and must continue to provide benefits to the constituency over which he rules to stay in power. There was an implicit social pact between Putin and Russians – both ordinary people and Russia’s kleptocratic elite. It was to guarantee relative stability and growth after Yeltsin’s years of turmoil and economic decline, and in return the wealthy paid Putin and his KGB entourage with a large share of their business profits, while the ordinary people continued to vote for him in carefully organized elections.
However, by starting this senseless and cruel war, Putin has upset the deal.
Nowadays, the economic situation of ordinary Russians is in freefall, following Western sanctions imposed following Putin’s war. In a predictable reaction from someone who responds to bad news by killing the messenger, Putin cut off all reliable information about the war, hoping the Russians won’t find out he’s responsible for their misery. Wealthy Russians – the mainstay of his regime – also suffered a precipitous loss of wealth and access to luxurious lifestyles as a result of Putin’s war. And now they face the prospect that they too could lose their lives, if Putin has a ‘nuclear moment’, after the imposition of a no-fly zone denying him the ability to bomb Ukrainian civilians at will. .
Assuming that the Russian elite would rather be alive than dead, and that they want to continue enjoying at least a modicum of the good life they are used to – of course, the vast majority of Russian elite wealth will have to be spent after the end of the conflict for the reconstruction of Ukraine – we can be pretty sure that they would prevent Putin from launching a nuclear weapon, if he were to crack.
And, last but not least, there is a principled argument for imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. We cannot, for the sake of our own souls, stand idly by and watch thousands of human beings, non-belligerent civilians, being killed so that we can stop the slaughter. Such idleness saps our moral strength. With every Ukrainian killed, bombed out of their homes, forced to flee in misery and pain, and run for their lives…when we could have prevented it– a bit of our own humanity is destroyed. To tolerate this outrage goes against the founding principles that are so dear to us. Remember: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, among which are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
By not immediately stopping Putin’s outrage, we are gradually abandoning the Enlightenment project entrusted to us by America’s founding fathers. And we don’t do it in an episode of serious disagreement over ideological principles – like when we faced a nuclear confrontation with the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Instead, every day the Putin’s planes fly unopposed and drop bombs on Ukrainian cities, we submit to the nuclear blackmail of a thug from Leningrad, terrified that the Russian people will know what he is doing.
Jan T. Gross is the Norman B. Tomlinson ’16 and ’48 Professor of War and Society and Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton University. He is the author of several books on World War II.