A No-Fly Zone in Ukraine Would Start World War III. It’s the Worst Idea Possible.

A growing chorus of voices is calling for Joe Biden to establish a no-fly zone — an action that would risk the future of human civilization.

US servicemen stand in front of F-15 fighters during NATO military exercises in Ukraine in 2018. (GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images)

I’m not much of an R.E.M. fan, but I’ve had “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” stuck in my head for days. A disturbing number of high-profile voices have been calling for President Joe Biden to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine. To his credit, he’s steadfastly refused to do so. But these forces are only going to get louder as the Russian invasion drags on. My boiling-hot take is that — and hear me out on this — starting World War III would be a bad thing.

Biden’s State of the Union was interrupted by chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” A member of the US House of Representatives has proposed deporting all Russian students from the United States. A prominent United States senator has publicly urged the assassination of Russian president Vladimir Putin. The political atmosphere in the United States has quickly turned xenophobic, bloodthirsty, and dark.

While the United States has provided a great deal of military aid to Ukraine, direct action by the American government has so far been mostly restricted to economic sanctions. It’s worth noting that not all sanctions are the same. Putin’s government is waging a monstrous imperial war. While we should oppose any sanctions that add to the misery of working-class Russians, targeted sanctions against individual Russian oligarchs are a different issue — just as it would have been hard to object if other powers had responded to the invasion of Iraq with targeted sanctions on politically connected American billionaires.

But there’s a pervasive atmosphere of jingoistic fervor, a sense of urgency that the United States “do something.” On the level of civil society, this has expressed itself through absurdities like the International Cat Federation banning Russian-bred cats from competition and petty or not-so-petty cruelties ranging from calls in the mixed martial arts world to ban Russian fighters to the Oncology Network pulling out of Russia. I guess if you can’t punish Vladimir Putin, you can at least punish cancer patients who live in his country.

Most disturbing, though, has been the parade of calls for American military intervention. In most cases, this takes the form of calls for the United States to set up a no-fly zone in Ukraine. A sitting US congressman has made that call. So has a senator. Dan Hodges of the Mail on Sunday, the biggest-selling Sunday paper in the UK, has said that not establishing a no-fly zone would be “an act of appeasement no different to our appeasement of Hitler in 1938.”

A few prominent figures have gone even further. Former world chess champion and fierce Putin critic Garry Kasparov breezily explained that World War III has “already” started, so direct NATO fighting in Ukraine would be fine. NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel publicly mused that it might be a good idea for “the US/NATO” to “destroy” Russian forces on the ground in Ukraine.

Given how much of the twentieth century was defined by collective terror about the likely consequences of a war between the United States and Russia, it’s remarkable how cavalier all these commentators and politicians have been about starting one now. And make no mistake: calls for a no-fly zone are calls for a war between the United States and Russia.

It could be argued that the Russian government would simply make a rational calculation and back off in the face of direct American military intervention. But the invasion of Ukraine was itself a wildly irrational act. And I wouldn’t trust the American government not to engage in potentially catastrophic future escalation if the Russian military directly involved itself in a war against American forces.

In a just released poll, 74 percent of American respondents said they would support a no-fly zone. I hope most of them don’t understand what that would actually mean.

“No-fly zone” is a combination of words that might not sound innately alarming. If Russian planes are participating in a horrific war of aggression, what’s wrong with prohibiting them from doing so?

As George Carlin liked to emphasize, euphemistic language is an enemy of both clarity and basic humanity. Let’s call things what they are. Calls for a “no-fly zone” are calls for the United States to shoot down Russian planes.

Take a beat to really think about how the phrase “the United States shooting down Russian planes” would have sounded during the decades of the Cold War. And then remember that the two nations’ gigantic nuclear stockpiles, enough to blow up the entire world multiple times over, haven’t gone anywhere.

Starting a war with Russia could indeed be the end of the world as we know it. As the world confronts that slim but real possibility, I don’t trust anyone who feels fine.