Image Credit: Netherlands Protest, Shutterstock / Dutchmen Photography
That Vladimir Putin has 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 ravings against the West and the United States before he even mentioned Ukraine.
In response, the West so far has imposed sanctions on Russia after Putin attacked Ukraine, and we are sending arms to this country’s brave defenders. We have merely chosen the means with which to engage in the conflict, not whether we are involved. Putin has imposed this war on us—and we already are in it.
The question now put before us is simple but fraught: How should we respond to Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy’s repeated demands to institute a no-flight zone over Ukraine?
I think there are good reasons why we should heed his request.
The first is to avoid falling into a trap that a European historian will find reminiscent of the scenario played out for eight months after September of 1939, when nobody in the West after the German invasion of Poland wanted to “die for Danzig”—the so-called “drole de guerre,” called in English the “phony war.”
The French and the British officially recognized that Germany was waging war on the Western powers when Hitler attacked Poland, and yet, the French army stood idly at the undefended western border of the Third Reich while the Wehrmacht, assisted by Stalin’s Red Army, dismembered Poland. But this “Sitzkrieg” (as the British press called it)wasn’t just phony—it was a serious mistake.
For if the Western leaders had chosen to risk “dying for Danzig,” the Franco-British push against the Third Reich would have most likely ended the war in three or four weeks—in no small part because German generals, stunned by Hitler’s recklessness, would have deposed him.
Instead, because it seemed prudent at the time in London and in Paris to defend the Western democracy to the last Pole, playing a waiting game as a slaughter unfolded, the Second World War lasted six years and took 70 million lives. Should this not serve as a warning that similarly defending the West in 2022 to the last Ukrainian may be not just immoral, but imprudent—and a losing strategy in response to Putin’s aggression?
The counter-argument is that we ought to refrain from imposing a no-flight zone, because Putin threatened anyone who interferes with his war against Ukraine with a nuclear retaliation.
But isn’t Putin’s nuclear blackmail precisely the reason why we ought to impose a no-flight zone over Ukraine? Or else, how could we have any confidence that we will defend ourselves—that the territory of NATO countries will be defended against a Russian attack—if Putin, as he is certain to do, would raise the threat of nuclear retaliation in case we 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 the NATO members, called “Article 5”?
Are we going to “die for Article 5” with any more zest than our ancestors who refused to “die for Danzig”? Try to persuade Putin that this is so, after we surrender to his nuclear blackmail and let him bomb Marioupol, Kharkiv, Kyiv, and many other Ukrainian cities into oblivion.
Concerning nuclear blackmail, it’s worth remembering that we’ve got nukes too. And therefore the effectiveness of Putin’s threat hangs on his ability to persuade us that he and the Russian elite—even a tyrant does not wage war singlehandedly, without a retinue of facilitators—have a death wish.
Without speculating about the content of Putin’s head, and judging only by empirically verifiable evidence, we may safely hypothesize that he very much prefers to stay alive and in good health—just note the size of the table over which he entertains during the COVID-19 pandemic. As to the profundity of death wishes among Putin’s facilitators, we can measure it with a good degree of precision by inspecting amenities of various yachts and villas belonging to Russian billionaires, which have just been impounded by Western authorities.
An autocrat that comes from nowhere and stays in office through rigged elections, has no legitimacy and must keep on delivering benefits to the constituency over which he rules to remain in power. There was an implicit social compact between Putin and the Russians—both ordinary people and the kleptocratic Russian elite. He was to guarantee relative stability and growth after Yeltsin’s years of turmoil and economic decline, and, in return, the rich paid off Putin and his KGB entourage with a big share of their business profits, while the regular folks continued to vote for him in carefully staged elections.
However, by starting this senseless and cruel war Putin has upended the deal.
Nowadays the economic circumstances of ordinary Russians are in a free fall, as a result of Western sanctions imposed in consequence of Putin’s war. In a predictable reaction of someone who responds to bad news by killing the messenger, Putin has cut off all reliable information about the war, hoping the Russians do not find out that he is responsible for their misery. The rich Russians—the mainstay of his regime—have incurred a precipitous loss of wealth and access to luxurious lifestyles in consequence of Putin’s war as well. And now they face the prospect that they might lose their lives also, were Putin to have a “nuclear moment,” after the imposition of no-flight 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 would want to continue enjoying at least a modicum of good life to which they are accustomed—of course, the vast majority of Russian elite’s wealth will have to be spent after the end of the conflict for the reconstruction of Ukraine—we can be pretty confident that they would stop Putin from launching a nuclear weapon, were he to snap.
And, last but not least, there is an argument from principle for enforcing a no-flight zone over Ukraine. We cannot, for the sake of our own souls, stand by and watch as thousands of fellow human beings, non-belligerent civilians, are being killed while we can stop the slaughter. Such idleness saps our moral strength. With every Ukrainian killed, bombed out of their abode, forced to flee in misery and pain, and run for their lives—while we could have prevented it—a bit of our own humanity is destroyed. To tolerate this outrage runs counter to the foundational principles 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 unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
By not stopping Putin’s outrage immediately we are giving up, bit by bit, the Enlightenment project bestowed upon us by America’s Founding Fathers. And we are doing this not in an episode of serious disagreement over ideological principles—as when we faced a nuclear confrontation with the USSR during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Instead, every day when Putin’s planes fly unopposed and drop bombs on Ukrainian cities we are surrendering to nuclear blackmail by a hooligan from Leningrad, scared out of his wits lest the Russian people find out what he is doing.
Jan T. Gross is a Norman B. Tomlinson ’16 and ’48 Professor of War and Society and Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. He is the author of several books about the Second World War.