Speaking to ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos earlier this month, Marco Rubio succinctly rejected one trendy option for protecting Ukraine from Russian bombs: establishing a “no-fly zone” over the country. “‘No-fly zone’ has become a catchphrase, but I’m not sure a lot of people understand what that means,” the Republican senator said. “It means World War III.”
Rubio, in the same interview, explained that a no-fly zone would require NATO aircraft to patrol Ukrainian airspace 24 hours a day. They would also almost certainly have to bomb Russian anti-aircraft weaponry in Belarus and Russia. And both of these actions would likely lead to a response from the Russian military, further escalation of the conflict, and possibly even nuclear war. Russia’s invasion is brutal and tragic—hundreds of civilians have already died—and there are no signs of it ending at the moment. But Rubio was right: Establishing a “no-fly zone” is a singularly bad idea, one all but guaranteed to make the conflict significantly worse, not better.
So, of course, the idea has growing approval among Rubio’s Republican colleagues—though not, apparently, because they actually care about defending Ukraine or checking Russian aggression. Rather, it’s an easy opportunity to make President Biden look weak.
“I absolutely do support a no-fly zone over the Ukraine,” Florida Representative Brian Mast told Fox News over the weekend. He added that he didn’t think that anyone “wants to be in a ground conflict in the Ukraine,” even though a ground war would become significantly more likely if NATO or the United States established a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Last week, another Florida Republican in Congress, Representative Maria Elvira Salazar, also said she supported a no-fly zone even though she didn’t “know what it will mean” for the future of the conflict. Her reason: “Freedom isn’t free.” (Salazar sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.)
These Republicans are far from alone. Senator Roger Wicker began advocating for a no-fly zone last month. “Clearly, in the absence of a U.N. resolution, which Russia would veto, a strong coalition of like-minded nations should step in and seriously consider this,” Wicker said in an interview with HuffPost. Senator Lindsey Graham has also supported the idea, though only if Russia were to use chemical weapons in Ukraine. Kurt Volker, who served as Donald Trump’s special emissary to Ukraine before resigning during the former president’s first impeachment, has also been a leading advocate for a no-fly zone, as have several other foreign policy luminaries.
Ukrainian officials have been calling for a no-fly zone for some time, an unsurprising ask given Russia’s aerial bombardment of the country over the past three weeks. Ukraine can’t repel the invasion without NATO’s help. But these officials also acknowledge the likely repercussions. “We are calling on the West to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine,” Andriy Yermak, who serves as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “We recognize that this would be a serious escalation in the war and that it could bring NATO into direct conflict with Russia. But we firmly believe that Russia won’t stop at just Ukraine, which would potentially drag NATO into this conflict anyway.” In other words, World War III is coming no matter what, so we may as well kick it off now.
Politics, not foreign policy is likely driving the right’s growing calls for a no-fly zone. President Biden’s approval rating has, after a long decline, begun to inch upward, thanks in large part to his handling of the invasion of Ukraine. In this arena, Biden has largely done what he said he would do as a candidate: engaging allies to pressure Russia to back down while refusing to commit American troops. The early sanctions placed on Russia by America and its European allies have been crushing, though it’s still far too soon to say if they’ve worked.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Republicans argued that Putin had not done so earlier because he was scared of Trump, whereas Biden is a doddering old fool who scares no one. “There’s no doubt that weakness leads to war,” Mast tweeted on February 24. “Putin once said the collapse of the Soviet empire was the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the past century for Russia. For America, President Biden may be the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of this century.”
Such talking points largely fell flat, not least because Trump spent his entire political career sucking up to Putin and was impeached for withholding military aid to Ukraine. So now some Republicans are trying a new tack. Criticizing Biden for not establishing a no-fly zone is a more specific charge than simply calling him a weakling—a tangible thing that the president could be doing in Ukraine but isn’t.
This line of attack, however, relies on the public’s misunderstanding of what a no-fly zone actually entails. A CBS poll released over the weekend found that the idea is popular: 59 percent of voters approved of it in theory. But if Putin saw a no-fly zone as an act of war—as he surely would—then 62 percent opposed it.
In this sense, the no-fly zone is the perfect Republican line of attack. It’s impractical and wildly cynical, and if it were put into place it would cause untold death and destruction. But hey, an apocalyptic world war is a risk some Republicans are willing to take if it cuts a few points out of Biden’s approval rating.