I guess a lot of us thought this sort of nightmare was behind us, this stuff we studied back in university when it was all fascinating abstractions about the Guns of August, and the sad, deluded folly of Peace in Our Time, all of it so many decades in the past – how is it that we didn’t learn the real lesson? It’s never over and done with. There’s always a next time. For a long while, it seemed like the grim logic of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction had really changed the calculus, and taken at least some of the most dire scenarios off the table, but maybe that was always a pipe dream. Even after Cuba, maybe we still hadn’t changed. Maybe it was inevitable that eventually, some megalomanic somewhere would be rash enough to reckon that deterrence cuts both ways, and see how far he could push his luck, with disastrous consequences for all of us.
Maybe this is it.
Beleaguered Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, the surprise hero of the hour, spoke to the Canadian parliament today, and pleaded, with the same frank eloquence he’ll no doubt display again when he speaks tomorrow to a joint session of the US Congress, for NATO to establish a no-fly zone over his increasingly devastated country. The Russians are stalled on the ground, their various incompetent battle plans leaving them with gains far too small to justify their casualties and material losses, but now they’re bombarding Ukraine’s cities, including the Capitol Kyiv, from long range, lobbing munitions into dense urban environments with indiscriminate cruelty. It’s by no means the level of destruction that they rained down upon targets like Grozny and Aleppo in prior campaigns, not yet, but it’s still devastating, ugly, and terribly hard to watch, and who knows, worse, much worse, may soon be in the offing as the Russians grow more frustrated at the deadlock. It’s only natural for we in the West to reproach ourselves, asking how can we let this happen? Don’t we have the means to stop it? Isn’t air power the modern military panacea, and haven’t we spent billions upon billions acquiring the most exquisitely deadly warplanes ever devised? Why not use them, now, to blanket the skies of poor, battered Ukraine while there’s still a chance to do some good, just as Zelenskyy asks – what else are the frigging things for, if it isn’t a situation like this? Why can’t we do something?
The emotional appeal is almost irresistible. It’s also a very, very bad idea.
Here’s the thing, though you’d never know it from listening to the various talking heads on the cable news shows: the idea that a blanket of NATO air cover could itself put a stop to the bombardment of Ukraine’s cities is entirely wrong-headed, at least inasmuch as Western fighter jets are deployed solely to stop Russian aircraft from dropping bombs. This is because so far, as surprising as it seems, Russian air power has barely been a factor, and while it’s not quite right to assert that Russian aviation hasn’t made any contribution to the carnage we’re seeing on the news, it’s certainly the case that bombs dropped from aircraft have been the very least of Ukraine’s problems. Though it’s confounded all the experts, given what appeared at the outset to be their overwhelming numerical and technological superiority in the air, the Russians have failed utterly to gain air superiority over Ukraine, and likewise haven’t been able to suppress Ukrainian air defences, either in the sky or on the ground.
In the result, Russian air power has largely failed to show up and do its part. When they do launch air raids, the Russians have suffered painful losses, and their failure to mount any sort of effective close air support for their own forces, let alone to conduct anything even approaching an effective “shock and awe” strategic bombing campaign against key Ukrainian assets, speaks not just to a lack of coordination with ground forces, but also to a shortage of guided munitions, problems with both doctrine and leadership, and perhaps even issues with the proficiency of their pilots, and the maintenance and serviceability of their planes. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of the strikes now being conducted against urban targets, the ones we’ve all seen on TV tearing holes in apartment buildings and landing upon hospitals, schools, and residential neighbourhoods, are coming from ordinary artillery and medium-range, ground-based ballistic rocket forces. They probably could have done more, better, with what they fielded against the Germans in World War II.
So the way it’s worked out, it actually doesn’t much matter if the VKS is grounded, while the key aspect of the essentially ground-based Russian assault, when it comes to the merits of any no-fly zone we might try to impose, is that it involves weapons that our very fine fighter jets, sophisticated though they are, couldn’t do a thing to stop. Yes, initially the Russians were using a lot of cruise missiles, and still are for selected targets (as in yesterday’s strike against the Ukrainian military training centre in Yavoriv, unnervingly close to the Polish border), and since these are essentially small pilotless airplanes, a NATO fighter screen could mount some defence against them, albeit only to a point. Yet we really aren’t seeing extensive use of such weapons. After an opening flurry, the Russians appear to have run short of cruise missiles, just as they seem to have run low on precision-guided weapons of all sorts. That may be one reason why it’s generally not worth their while to risk precious aircraft over what remain fairly well-defended urban targets. All they could do is come in dangerously low to drop unguided iron bombs, “dumb bombs” in the vernacular, which tend to miss by a wide margin, and don’t confer any great advantage over shells lobbed out of howitzers from a safe distance, projectiles against which our aircraft, like Ukrainian air defences, would be helpless.
Helpless, that is, if all they’re doing is flying around at altitude, enforcing a no-fly rule. They could do something, of course. They could go after the guns and rocket launchers on the ground.
I suspect Zelenskyy understands this perfectly. I think that’s why he advocates so strenuously for a no-fly zone. He knows it won’t be of much use, but it drags NATO’s chair to the table, and from there the chain reaction becomes all but pre-ordained. He’s desperate, after all. From where he sits, he’s already in World War III. He wants us in it too, and you can’t blame him if the way he sees it, the sooner NATO jets start bombing Russian guns, the better.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s not even consider that attacks upon Russian artillery will be the obvious and practically inevitable next application of all that air power, once setting up a no-fly regime proves insufficient; let’s assume that standing NATO air patrols, denying the Russians any access to the skies over Ukraine, would themselves achieve some useful military objective. How, then, is this supposed to work? People talk about it as if it’s simply a matter of declaring the new rules, and then flying the necessary sorties, in the teeth of which the Russians, presumably overawed by the obvious superiority of our planes and pilots, will be too frightened to do anything but comply. Yet of course they won’t be overawed. Of course they will rise up to challenge our aircraft, and while I’m confident, particularly in light of the Russians’ recent performance, that our planes and pilots really are better than theirs (not just the “5th generation” F-22s and F-35s that the Americans would deploy, but also the “4.5 generation” jets, like the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon, that our allies would commit to the fray), that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t get nasty. They have some hot jets too, particularly the latest models in the “Flanker” series like the SU-35, and we’d certainly lose some aircraft. More to the point, so would they. Indeed, I’m pretty sure they’d lose a lot of aircraft, something they aren’t apt to take lying down.
Moreover, they might not just be losing them in air combat. Bear in mind that the very best way to put a lid on enemy air activity is to attack the planes where they spend most of their time, sitting still on their home bases. Of course we’ll be reluctant to take such a step – it won’t be our opening move, put it that way – but the logic for hitting Russian jets on their airfields may grow increasingly compelling as the campaign drags on, particularly when it comes to the bigger jets that can hit Ukraine with missiles fired from stand-off range, while still flying well inside Russia, where they’d be outside the declared no-fly zone, and awfully difficult to intercept anyway, once airborne (assets like “Backfire” bombers, which sources indicate were the culprits in yesterday’s attack on Yavoriv). At the same time, if Russian strike aircraft persist in penetrating Ukrainian airspace, continually joining combat with NATO jets, or worse, eluding interception entirely as they go about their nasty business, frustration might drive our side to take it to the next level, destroying hostile aircraft on the ground, along with their associated facilities, fuel and ammunition stores, and runways, all of which means attacking them on their airfields within Russia and neighbouring Belarus.
Even if we shrink from taking it that far, and even if we manage to take control of the contested airspace anyway, we’ll still find ourselves forced into striking Russians on the ground. Once their aviation is fully suppressed, the business of maintaining the no-fly regime necessarily devolves into a grinding war of attrition with opposing ground-based air defence systems, which will quickly become the primary antagonists of NATO air forces. This was the lesson of Operation Southern Watch in Iraq (remember that?), which involved many years of deadly attacks upon continually resurgent surface-to-air missile batteries and their associated radars, in an ongoing campaign that barely involved Iraqi aircraft at all, and didn’t really stop until the 2003 invasion that finally put an end to Saddam’s malignant reign. Suppression of enemy air defences will be a priority the instant we decide to intervene, and will require a massive commitment of firepower.
The Russians, who have a peculiar passion (one might almost say “mania”) for anti-aircraft missiles, and boast all manner of highly potent systems, could prove particularly tough opponents in this effort. Their forces are protected not only by mobile systems within Ukraine, but long-range batteries of utterly fearsome weapons, like the vaunted S-400, that can launch missiles at targets several hundred kilometres away, from well within Russian and Belarusian territory. Thus far, they don’t seem to have made the best use of these weapons, and may suffer here from the same sort of training and logistical issues that afflict them in other areas, but we won’t be able to count upon that. Their systems will have to be struck repeatedly, beginning on day one, in an unrelenting campaign that has to involve losses on our side, and quite awful devastation on theirs.
So now we’ve not only blasted everything that flies without our permission, we’re bombing the living bejesus out of Russians on the ground throughout a theatre of operations that extends well beyond Ukraine’s borders and into sovereign Russian territory, all of it conducted from NATO airbases in places like Poland, Romania, and Germany, which facilities are therefore fair game and prone to counter-attack. We’re into a real war.
That’s the optimistic scenario, and it’s already a right bloody mess, but now comes the really ugly part, when the relentless pressure to make a difference will almost certainly propel us much farther still down the road to armageddon. Let’s suppose we’ve established our no-fly zone, and run all the profoundly escalatory risks described above, yet managed, so far, to avoid the end of the world. So now the Russians aren’t flying – so what? It’s at that point that we realize that we haven’t really accomplished anything decisive, and won’t, either, not until we take the next step and start doing something about all those rocket launchers and artillery tubes that continue, unmolested, to rain death and destruction down upon all those pitifully suffering Ukrainian towns and cities. At that point, with the Russians no doubt launching long range ballistic missile strikes against NATO facilities, we might just as well go all in, right? In fact, if the Russians also respond by really hammering at urban areas in the same way they did in Grozny, and our planes are flying overhead doing nothing, we’ll feel compelled to grab the next rung on the ladder, won’t we? And as long as we’re going all in, there’d be no sense in limiting our strikes to the business end of the problem; we’d want to take out the vulnerable elements of the logistics train, all those long lines of trucks, without which the supply dries up and the Russians have no shells or rockets to fire, however many guns and launchers they manage to hide behind buildings or under forest cover, where our aircraft can’t get at them. In fact, hitting the supply train won’t just stop the artillery, it’ll paralyze their entire army, and isn’t that the idea, really? And what if their tanks break out of the deadlock and start moving again? Surely, we’ll hit them too, there being no further point to restraint.
Once you’ve started this ball rolling, there’s no point to half measures, and really, there’s no way this doesn’t turn into general war against all Russian assets, their tanks, their troops, the lot.
Let me emphasize this: not only does a no-fly zone involve more than people seem to think, there’s no way in Hell that this stops at a no-fly zone.
Meanwhile, what are the Russians doing in response? When they run out of conventional weapons they can pitch into Poland and Germany, what then? Do they retreat? Or do they take the next step up the escalation ladder? Maybe they decide that two can play this game, and move to make things painful for us where we live – Russian submarines, for example, could start sinking our shipping all over the world, or launch cruise missile attacks on bases not only in Europe, but out of theatre, in North America – attacks which, I assure you, we are in no position to thwart. Maybe they don’t restrict themselves to military targets, either, and maybe, God help us, they don’t limit themselves to conventional weapons. To this point, Putin’s bluster about raising the alert level of his nuclear forces, and his associated threats of unprecedented consequences should anybody try to get in his way, have been mostly hot air, but if NATO starts to pound his military into the ground like a tent peg, can we be sure that he won’t respond with the biggest hammer he has left in his toolbox?
It starts with what seems like a simple, antiseptic sort of notion, a no-fly zone, but you can see where it goes. You can see just how far, how fast, we can find ourselves drawn in to a general war that extends well beyond Europe, and quite possibly leads finally to the use of weapons of mass destruction. This, even though all I’ve laid out here is an obvious, simple scenario. We haven’t even begun to discuss all the ways the Russians could retaliate, both in the real world and within cyberspace, or started thinking about what, say, China does, or whether, in the way of such things, the growing conflagration draws in powers from all corners of the globe.
By the time you read this, Zelenskyy will likely already have made his emotional plea for air cover, and hot-heads like Lindsay Graham, and the assorted other morons in the GOP who make even him look like a genius, will be making all sorts of incoherent noise about how Biden is weak, and dammit, we frigging-well need to do something. ASAP. If we’re lucky, Biden will hold fast, and continue down the prudent path of trying to manage this crisis without sparking off global thermonuclear war, even though this means we all have to keep watching the unbearable horror show, and that’s awfully, awfully hard to do. It’s a terrible thing to see. I’m not saying it isn’t. I’ll accept, too, that we’ll draw no comfort from the near certainty that what we’re actually witnessing is Putin making blunder after blunder while he hangs himself, and sets his nation back fifty years. He can’t win this war. Even if he seems to win, for a while, he loses. But that’s a long-term thing, and we’ll all want action now, today. Even I will.
As I write this, and imagine all that’s yet to come, I can feel us being sucked into world war, as if history itself wills it, and there’s nothing we can do. It fills me with dread. Yet there is something we can do, indeed must do. We have to stay the course. We have to resist the visceral urge to do more. We have to muster the moral courage to sit here and watch as Russia exhausts itself, doing its worst, while Putin leads his country down the road to ruin, while also, hopefully, engineering his own downfall.