Corporate media outlets are calling for the United States and its allies to react to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine by escalating the war. The opinion pages are awash with pleas to pump ever-more deadly weaponry into the conflict, to choke Russian civilians with sanctions, and even to institute a “no-fly zone.” That such approaches gamble with thousands, and possibly millions, of lives doesn’t shake the resolve of the press’s armchair generals.
No-fly zone: ‘necessary and overdue’
The Daily Beast (3/18/22) ran an opinion piece by Joshua D. Zimmerman contending that “A No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine Is Necessary and Overdue.” He said that
NATO should immediately announce a 72-hour ultimatum—using the threat of a no-fly zone over Ukraine as leverage—to demand an immediate cease-fire and the beginnings of a complete Russian withdrawal from Ukraine.
If Putin fails to meet these terms, then a NATO-led no-fly zone over Ukraine—at the express invitation of the Ukrainian government—will go into effect.
It’s hard to imagine three words doing more work than “go into effect” are here. A “no-fly zone” could only “go into effect” by NATO destroying Russia’s air capacities—by launching, that is, a direct NATO/Russia war. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (3/7/22) conveyed the risks of such a move:
So long as NATO and Russian forces don’t begin fighting each other, the risk of nuclear escalation may be kept in check. But a close encounter between NATO and Russian warplanes (which would result if NATO imposed a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine’s airspace) could become a flashpoint that leads to a direct and wider conflict.
Pesky details like nuclear war don’t bother Zimmerman, who claimed that “the only form of aid that today would halt Russia’s day-in, day-out slaughter of Ukrainian civilians is military intervention,” specifically a “no-fly zone.” He argued that “history has shown us that allowing aggressors to gain territory through force leads to much greater conflict in the future,” citing events from the 1930s such as Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Italy’s of Ethiopia and the Nazis’ conquests in the years leading up to the Second World War.
Perhaps Zimmerman selected examples from more than 80 years ago because more recent cases, in contexts much more comparable to the present one, demonstrate the danger of advocating a “no-fly zone” to save Ukrainians. Every “no-fly zone” established in the post–Cold War era has been a precursor to all- out war and the destruction of a country.
The United States implemented two “no-fly zones” over Iraq between 1991 and 2003, at which point the US and its partners moved on to the full-scale devastation of Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands in the process (Jacobin, 6/19/14). NATO created “no-fly zones” in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and later over Kosovo, during the period in which NATO was dismantling Yugoslavia (Monthly Review, 10/1/07). In 2011, NATO imposed a “no-fly zone” in Libya, ostensibly to protect the population from Moammar Gadhafi (Jacobin, 9/2/13): The result was ethnic cleansing, the emergence of slave markets, mass civilian casualties (In These Times, 8/18/20) and more than a decade of war in the country.
Defending ‘U.S. global leadership’
The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Joe Lieberman (3/9/22) in which he too states “The Case for a No-Fly Zone in Ukraine.” The former senator and vice presidential candidate bemoaned that
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have said they couldn’t support a no-fly zone over Ukraine because that would be an offensive action, and NATO is a defensive alliance. But that makes no sense. The offensive actions are being carried out by invading Russian troops. The purpose of a no-fly zone would be defensive, protecting and defending the people of Ukraine from the Russians.
It’s Lieberman’s argument that “makes no sense”: NATO imposing a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine would be an offensive action because it entails firing on Russian forces, and Russia has not fired at a NATO member.
Lieberman went on to say:
Sending American or other NATO planes into the air over Ukraine to keep Russian aircraft away would protect Ukrainian lives and freedom on the ground, making it possible to defeat Mr. Putin’s brazen and brutal attempt to rebuild the Russian empire, undercut US global leadership and destroy the world order that we and our allies have built.
“Keep[ing] Russian aircraft away” is a strange way of saying “shooting down Russian aircraft,” which is what Lieberman is actually describing. And not only aircraft would be targeted: Even a prominent proponent of the “no-fly zone,” retired Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, acknowledged (NPR, 3/3/22; Forbes, 3/8/22):
Probably what would happen even before that is if there are defense systems in the enemy’s territory that can fire into the no-fly zone, then we normally take those systems out, which would mean bombing into enemy territory.
Or as then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted behind closed doors while advocating for a “no-fly zone” in Syria (Intercept, 10/10/16; FAIR.org, 10/27/16): “To have a no-fly zone you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas.”
In other words, Lieberman’s plan to “protect Ukrainian lives and freedom on the ground” is to initiate a shooting war in Ukrainian territory between the two countries with the world’s largest nuclear stockpiles (Independent, 2/28/22).
‘If they can shoot it, we can ship it’
A Wall Street Journal editorial (3/16/22) said that “the US should be doing far more to arm the Ukrainians.” The editors approvingly quoted Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse saying,
“If they can shoot it, we can ship it.” MiGs and Su-25s, S-200s and S-300s, drones.
An example are Switchblade drones that are portable and can destroy a target from a distance. The weapon is ideal for attacking tanks and some of the artillery units that are hitting cities and civilians. The latest US arms package reportedly includes 100 Switchblades. But the Pentagon should have delivered all of the Switchblades in the American arsenal to Ukraine at the start of the war, and then contracted to buy more.
The Journal’s editors were hardly alone in wanting to flood Ukraine with weapons. A Washington Post op-ed (3/16/22) by former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul asserted that “Ukrainians will ultimately defeat Vladimir Putin’s army,” and that the only question is how long it will take, though the basis for this claim appears to be little more than a priori reasoning and a crystal ball.
McFaul called on “the West” to “boost” military aid to Ukraine “to hasten the end of the war [in Ukraine’s favor] and thus save Ukrainian (and Russian) lives. More weapons…do just that.” McFaul wrote that “President Biden and his team cannot escalate US involvement in ways that might trigger nuclear war,” though escalation short of that threshold is apparently fine.
Russia’s ruling class sees their country as having “a vital interest in preventing the expansion of hostile alliances on its borders” (Russia Matters, 3/14/19). Full Ukrainian membership in the alliance in question, NATO, may be far-fetched in the short-term, but last June, NATO insisted that Ukraine “will become” a member, and a year earlier, NATO recognized Ukraine as an “enhanced opportunities partner.” Given that Russia sees “preventing” that as “a vital interest,” McFaul and the Journal editors are on shaky ground when they assume that the West giving Ukraine more weapons will cause Russia to give up, rather than countering the move with more firepower of its own.
Nor do the authors worry themselves with the peculiar habit US weapons have of finding their way to some of the nastiest factions in the warzones to which the US sends arms. ISIS benefited mightily from the US doling out weapons for use in Syria (Newsweek, 12/14/17), a practice that didn’t have particularly salutary effects for Syrians or people living beyond the country’s borders.
Arming proto–Al Qaeda against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was a central cause of such minor inconveniences as the 9/11 attacks and more than 40 years of war in Afghanistan (Jacobin, 9/11/21). The risks of a similar outcome in Ukraine are real, considering that the vicious neo-Nazi Azov Battalion is part of the Ukrainian military (Haaretz, 7/9/18), and that “far-right European militia leaders…have taken to the internet to raise funds, recruit fighters and plan travel to the front lines” (New York Times, 2/25/22).
Sanctions: ‘harsh’ but ‘appropriate’
A New York Times editorial (3/4/22) deemed the latest round of “harsh, immediate and wide-ranging sanctions” to be “appropriate,” because they “demonstrated that there are consequences for unprovoked wars of aggression.” (Note that over the last 30 years, the New York Times has never opposed and has often endorsed the United States’ numerous acts of military aggression—none of which can be described with a straight face as “provoked.”)
In this case, the “consequences”—”the ruble tanked, the Russian stock market plunged and Russians lined up at ATMs to withdraw money”—make life “harsh” for ordinary Russian civilians, irrespective of whether they support the war or the Putin government. (When polled, approximately one-fourth of Russia’s population expresses opposition to the invasion of Ukraine, roughly the same proportion of Americans that opposed the disastrous Iraq invasion—Meduza, 3/7/22; Gallup, 3/24/03).
Peter Rutland (The Conversation, 2/28/22), a scholar who focuses on Russia’s political economy, notes that “the falling ruble pushes up the price of imports, which make up over half the consumer basket,” including about 60% of the medicines Russians consume. According to Rutland, “The new sanctions will severely impact the living standard of ordinary Russians.”
Subjecting the Russian population to such policies is about as constructive a step toward a ceasefire in Ukraine as would be bombing St. Petersburg. Historically, sanctions have exacerbated rather than reduced international tensions; that sanctions preceded both Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling, and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last month, would suggest that the pattern is continuing (Washington Post, 3/3/22).
‘Punishing Russia’s economy’
A Washington Post editorial (2/24/22) said that consequences of,
unchecked Russian aggression…could be more damaging and more lasting than any turmoil stemming from the economic sanctions, limited troop deployments and other measures Mr. Biden has announced.
“Raising the costs to Mr. Putin,” the article said, “may still have an impact, but not unless those costs are truly punishing to Russia’s economy.”
In practical terms, “punishing…Russia’s economy” means penalizing virtually all Russians. Bloomberg (3/4/22) reports that Russia is now “on course for an economic collapse,” noting that JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s economists said that they “expect a 7% contraction in [Russia’s] gross domestic product this year, the same as Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. Bloomberg Economics forecasts a fall of about 9%.”
Apart from being collective punishment, which is illegal under international law, “punishing” an entire country to the point that its economy faces possible “collapse” may indeed have an “impact.” However, that may be something other than a groundswell of support inside Russia for the sort of functional relationship with the United States that could help end the violence in Ukraine and prevent US/Russian brinksmanship—including the nuclear variety.
A Washington Post editorial (2/27/22) three days later advocated sanctions in a roundabout fashion, noting that polls suggest Americans support such moves:
Lawmakers should consider these data from a new Washington Post/ABC News poll: 67% percent of American adults favor sanctions against Russia. More than half of adults said they would support sanctions even if it meant higher energy prices. Between the resistance of the Ukrainians and the unity of the West, Mr. Putin appears baffled. Congress should add to his troubles.
Yet sanctions do not merely “add to [Putin’s] troubles”: They are acts of war. The paper is seeking an escalation in the US/Russia conflict from which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is inextricable (FAIR.org, 1/15/22; Canadian Dimension, 3/18/22).
Corporate media may not be saying that America should launch a third world war, but the courses these outlets are recommending are geared toward prolonging the war in Ukraine, intensifying the violence and risking its expansion, rather toward achieving a negotiated end to the war as quickly as possible.