How to help Ukrainians is a moral question, too

An impressive group of national security experts has made the case for a limited no-fly zone to protect humanitarian relief corridors in Ukraine.

Russia has repeatedly promised to observe cease-fires around designated corridors — and has repeatedly attacked precisely the places where it had agreed civilians could gather.

I am not qualified to assess the military merits of the no-fly zone proposal. Neither, I might add, are many of those heaping scorn on it through social media. This proposal plainly does not enjoy the support of the dominant factions of the national security establishment — the same establishment that predicted that Russia would quickly roll up the Ukrainian opposition. 

From a national security perspective, any honest person must admit we do not know how the various actors in Russia would react, and any sane person must admit that there is serious risk.

But this question also has a moral side, one that cannot be addressed with national security expertise alone. That moral aspect presumably is what is driving the huge bipartisan majority polls find supporting a no-fly zone.

“Never again” is a vow, but it is also a brag.

When we say, “never again,” we say that we are better than those who sat by while the Nazis killed 6 million people solely because they were Jewish. We say that we would have the courage and moral clarity to intervene where our forebears did not: that we would have checked the growth of Nazi power, that we would have opened our shores to desperate Jews fleeing Europe, that we would have bombed the railroad tracks leading to the deathcamps.

Standing up to Hitler would indeed have been risky: Nazi Germany had by far the most powerful military in the world. Confronting him and losing would have risked the end of civilization worthy of the name. But when we say, “never again,” we say that the defense of innocent lives can oblige nations to take grave risks. 

We cannot, of course, go back and overrule the decisions of the selfish, narrow-minded, cowardly leaders of that time. The only way to back up these boasts that we are better is in how we handle the challenges of our own times.

We did not acquit ourselves well in our responses to the Cambodian killing fields, the Rwandan genocide, the long suffering of Sarajevo, or the mass murder of civilians and repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria.

We eventually roused ourselves to intervene in Kosovo and Libya, but only after enormous carnage had already occurred — and at little risk to ourselves, as we hopelessly outmatched our opponents.

Today, the Ukrainian people face an unprovoked assault from Russia, whose leaders deny the Ukrainians’ right to exist as a people and accordingly devalue their lives.

The argument against a no-fly zone comes down to the argument that Russia’s nuclear arms makes the country too dangerous to confront. Taken in its purest form, that would mean that Putin can do anything he pleases: It says that if he wants to hold a military parade down the Champs-Elysees, we dare not interfere.

Of course, we do not say that: We say we would defend any NATO member’s territory.

But is drawing this line defensible? If this really is where we draw the line — and give Russia an unfettered hand everywhere else — then we must amend our vow/brag of “never again” to “never again … within NATO.”

That’s not quite so majestic. 

But why are the risks of confronting Russia worth taking for NATO, but for no one else? Few NATO countries are important for our own defense. What, really, has Luxembourg done lately to make us safer? Far, far — far — less than Ukraine.

Yes, many NATO countries are democracies, but so are many non-NATO countries — and Ukraine could certainly stack its democratic credentials up favorably against those of Hungary, Turkey, and probably several other NATO members.

And if we think of NATO as a kind of insurance policy that one cannot take out in the midst of a crisis, Ukraine has been trying for years to sign up. Ukraine certainly has shown far more interest in NATO than Kuwait ever did before it was invaded. If excluding a country from NATO means exposing them to massive war crimes from a powerful bully, we need far better reasons for excluding Ukraine than have been offered.

Nor can we justify granting protection to NATO countries while denying it to Ukraine on the grounds that our word is at stake in NATO. We also gave our word to Ukraine, guaranteeing its territorial integrity in 1994 in exchange for it giving up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union. Hostile countries with nuclear programs certainly will not credit our security guarantees if our word to Ukraine means nothing.

The supposed red lines are not as bright as is sometimes suggested. We have indeed fired on Russian soldiers: We fought — and badly beat — them in Syria. The Kremlin chose to disavow the forces involved. Numerous similar incidentsthere and elsewhere — likely occurred and were kept out of the headlines. We took these risks for far less compelling reasons.

Confronting Russian aggression to secure humanitarian corridors in Ukraine undeniably entails some risk. Contrary to our practice enforcing other no-fly zones, our adversary will have intact air defenses, increasing risks for our pilots. We would face the possibility of miscalculations, raising risks to us all. Both Russia and we have systems for preventing those risks from spiraling out of control, and after seeing Ukrainian defenders humiliate their forces, Russian generals may not wish to tangle with U.S. planes. That said, neither predictions — nor systems — are fool-proof.

Still, a country that will only stand up for core principles of humanity when it faces absolutely no risk in doing so is not much of a ‘great power.’

And it certainly is not one entitled to say, “never again.”

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1 

Tags humanitarian crisis International relations Military moral imperative moral question NATO Never Again No-fly zone Post-Soviet conflicts Russia Russian aggression Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Russia–NATO relations Ukraine War crimes

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