Over the weekend, the U.S. declared a no-fly zone off the table. Secretary Blinken on NBC News with Chuck Todd:
QUESTION: ... Why rule out the no-fly zone? Why not make Putin think it’s possible?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: ...The President’s been very clear... we’re not going to put the United States in direct conflict with Russia, not have American planes flying against Russian planes or our soldiers on the ground in Ukraine, because for everything we’re doing for Ukraine, the President also has a responsibility to not get us into a direct conflict, a direct war, with Russia, a nuclear power, and risk a war that expands even beyond Ukraine to Europe. That’s clearly not our interest. What we’re trying to do is end this war in Ukraine, not start a larger one....
And by the way, keep in mind what – again, keep in mind what a no-fly zone – just so people understand, too, what a no-fly zone means. It means that if you declare a space no-fly and a Russian plane flies through it, it means we have to shoot it down.
If country A nakedly invades country B, and country A has the ability to expand to a wider war, especially nuclear, then the US will not fight. Not only we do not fight directly, we do not declare a no-fly zone. If country B has an explicit defense treaty with the US, such as NATO, we might, but otherwise, you're on your own.
This announcement follows NATO secretary Stoltenberg making the same peremptory announcement. I focus on the US because the wider implications for the US making this pronouncement.
I do not wish to argue with this judgment in the instance of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin. The administration, and NATO, are making a judgement that sending weapons and crushing the Russian economy with sanctions are not too "provocative," but that declaring a no-fly zone is. They are making a judgement that Ukraine can survive without it, and that the extra death and destruction in Ukraine is not worth the risk. I hope people are questioning this judgement, but pundits should defer a little bit to people in charge with lots of information on such judgement calls.
But given this decision, why rule it out? Why say it out loud? Why make it a matter of principle, now a doctrine?
They could simply not do it, and keep Putin guessing. That achieves the end that a U.S. finger does not pull the trigger on a U.S. weapon that sends a U.S. bullet or missile in the direction of a Russian pilot.
They could call Putin and say "We're not putting in a no-fly zone. Don't worry, your attack is safe from the air." This time.
But they did not. Once again, the U.S. declares, publicly, ahead of time -- ahead of the possible collapse of the Ukrainian government -- what we will not do, and elevates it to a matter of principle.
Who else is listening? Well, Xi Jinping. And the Iranians. And the South Koreans, Japanese, Saudi Arabians, and more.
Suppose, just suppose, China invades Taiwan. How does the same principle not apply? Goodbye strategic ambiguity. A no-fly zone would be a joke in that case -- if the U.S. wishes to save Taiwan it will mean attacks, not just loitering over Taiwan waiting for something to happen. How about responding with an embargo, a no-trade zone? Well, that would risk U.S. warships shooting at a Chinese ship, which would threaten a wider war. Off the table.
We have just wrapped Taiwan up and delivered it to China.
Message to Iran: test one nuclear weapon. Invade Syria, Iraq, or whatever. The US will not respond. Message to others. Get nukes. Now.
This war isn't just about Ukraine. It is about the kind of world we live in for the next generation.
Why make these public pronouncements about what we will not do? I can think of only one reason, one audience: American voters. Reassure people in the US who do not want to see greater help for Ukraine. Push up those poll numbers. For once, please, ignore the polls. Govern wisely and quietly. Only one poll counts, at the next election.
MAD was always questionable game theory. If Russia blows up a city in Europe, why would NATO murder tens of millions of Russian civilians in response? A hardy conventional response was always important.
But at least the rules of the game were clear: The nuclear threat is respected for invasions of a country that has them, or invasions of allies such as NATO. Nuclear threats do not apply to invasions of third countries. Yes, we do what we can to keep the conflict contained, often at great cost, as in Vietnam. But we do not as a matter of principle rule out any action.
Of course the swiftness and severity of economic sanctions are big news of the last few weeks. How will Xi Jinping read that? I note that much of what's going on now are private, voluntary sanctions; a general refusal to do business with Russia because so many people and corporations are rightly outraged about this invasion. Now, what will happen if China invades Taiwan? Will people around the world see the same outrage? Even the US officially regards China and Taiwan as one country. Will they be willing to do without the much larger and more crucial amount of Chinese manufactured goods? For how long?