The case for a no-fly zone in Ukraine

As much as we may fear a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia, a no-fly zone, humanitarian airlifts, and even limited NATO airstrikes may be the only way to force the Russians to withdraw and for Putin’s insane war to end.

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A protester holds a placard calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine during a demonstration on Mar. 15 in Prague, Czech Republic.

Michal Cizek/Getty

As hundreds of Russian tanks and missiles lay siege to the cities of Kharkiv, Kyiv and Mariupol, millions of Ukrainian civilians are facing a desperate plight. Women and children are running out of food and water, living in unsanitary conditions on subway platforms and in air-raid shelters, praying for relief. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy continues to plead for NATO to create a no-fly zone, to provide humanitarian corridors that can help supply the civilians now under bombardment.

Now that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invaders are deliberately bombing civilian targets, including children’s centers, theaters and a maternity hospital in Mariupol, how long can NATO and the United States afford to remain on the sidelines?

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During the Balkan War of the 1990s, President Bill Clinton was hesitant to save the residents of Sarajevo until Slobodan Milosevic ordered the bombing and slaughter of innocent civilians. Over 8,000 were massacred at Srebrenica before NATO coordinated air strikes that forced the Serbs to the negotiating table. This resulted in the Dayton peace accords that eventually brought the war to a close. War criminals like Putin and Milosevic can only be stopped by decisive action. A limited no-fly zone could radically change the balance of power and force the Russians to declare “mission accomplished” and withdraw their troops before they suffer even more humiliating defeats. At a minimum, the West should organize humanitarian airdrops, parachuting food and supplies, similar to the Berlin Airlift of 1948 to prevent starvation among people sheltering in the besieged cities.

Western analysts have tried to guess Vladimir Putin’s endgame. For all his deceptive euphemisms, Putin has made his intentions abundantly clear: He plans to subdue the entire country, to destroy Ukraine’s independence and to punish Ukrainians for their refusal to surrender their freedom. Putin cannot achieve his dream of domination without a staggering loss of life. In a word, his goal is genocide.

Ukrainians are fighting heroically because they know the stakes involved. This is not the first time Russian overlords have committed genocide against Ukraine. Between 1932 and 1933, Josef Stalin tried to crush Ukrainian resistance to his forced collectivization policies through the systematic confiscation of foodstuffs and blockage of humanitarian shipments.

In her book “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum describes how Stalin’s brutality led to the tragedy known as the Holodomor: the death by starvation of at least 3.9 million, and possibly as many as 10 million, Ukrainians. Rafael Lemkin, the Ukrainian Jewish lawyer who initiated the term, called the Holodomor a “classic case of genocide.”

Understandably, the world fears escalating the war and a possible nuclear confrontation. But this is not the first time that the superpowers have confronted each other since acquiring nuclear weapons. Putin is a remorseless, psychopathic killer, but he is not suicidal. He has far too much ill-gotten wealth to live for. As restrained as the Biden administration and NATO might want to be, the Western powers should not wait for further aerial bombardment and the mass murder of Ukrainians before taking action.

It is not only Ukraine that will suffer the consequences of Putin’s continued aggression. Ukraine is no economic wasteland. This is a land of stunning, mind-boggling fertility. Known for centuries as the “breadbasket of Europe,” it is among the top global exporters of foodstuffs that many countries rely on to prevent famine.

Each year, Ukraine exports millions of tons of wheat, barley, soy, sugar, and sunflower oil. Today, hundreds of thousands of Ukraine’s most productive citizen soldiers and farmers are embroiled in war when they should be home planting bumper crops the world depends on. At a time when Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and other drought-ravaged countries are facing mass starvation, the world cannot afford to leave millions of hectares of Ukraine’s rich black earth uncultivated.

After leaving office, President Bill Clinton expressed regret that he did not act more decisively to stop the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. Had he acted sooner, hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved. President Joe Biden needs to heed Zelenskyy’s passionate plea.

As much as we may fear a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia, a no-fly zone, humanitarian airlifts, and even limited NATO airstrikes may be the only way to force the Russians to withdraw and for Putin’s insane war to end.

Alexander Kuzma is chief development officer of the Ukrainian Catholic University Foundation.

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