A No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine Could Unleash Untold Violence

As war rages on in Ukraine, diplomacy continues to take a back seat in spite of the heartbreaking devastation Russia’s invasion has wrought. The post-World War II global architecture is simply incapable of regulating issues of war and peace, and the West continues to reject Russia’s security concerns. There are also calls for a no fly zone to be declared over Ukraine. However, the actual implementation of such a policy would only escalate violence with potentially devastating consequences. Noam Chomsky, an exclusive interviewee, warns that the idea of a no fly zone is extremely dangerous. Truthout.

C.J. C.J. In light of Russia’s failure to comply with rules of international law, isn’t there something to be said at the present juncture about the institutions and norms of the postwar international order? It’s quite obvious that the Westphalian state-centric world order cannot regulate the geopolitical behavior of state actors with respect to issues of war/peace and even sustainability. Isn’t it therefore a matter of survival that we develop a new global normative architecture?

Noam Chomsky: If it is truly a matter of survival, then it is lost because it cannot be achieved within any relevant timeframe. We can only hope for strengthening what is already there, which is very fragile. That will be difficult enough.

The great powers constantly violate international law, as do smaller ones when they can get away with it, commonly under the umbrella of a great power protector, as when Israel illegally annexes the Syrian Golan Heights and Greater Jerusalem — tolerated by Washington, authorized by Donald Trump, who also authorized Morocco’s illegal annexation of Western Sahara.

The UN Security Council is responsible for maintaining peace and authorizing force if necessary. This is according to international law. Superpower aggression doesn’t reach the Security Council: U.S. wars in Indochina, the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq, or Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, to take three textbook examples of the “supreme international crime” for which Nazis were hanged at Nuremberg. The U.S. is invincible. Russian crimes receive at least some attention.

The Security Council may consider other atrocities, such as the French-British-Israeli invasion of Egypt and the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956. But the veto stops further action. The U.S., a superpower, ordered the reverse of the first. This was to protest the timing and manner in which the aggression was carried out. The second crime, committed by a superpower could only be protested.

The superpower’s contempt for international law frameworks is so common that it goes almost unnoticed. In 1986, the International Court of Justice condemned Washington for its terrorist war (in legalistic jargon, “unlawful use of force”) against Nicaragua, ordering it to desist and pay substantial reparations. With the support from the liberal press, the U.S. dismissed this judgment with contempt and escalated its attack. The UN Security Council tried to respond with a resolution urging all nations to respect international law. It did not mention anyone, but everyone understood the intent. It was vetoed by the United States, who declared loudly that it was not subject to international law. It has been omitted from history.

It is not often recognized that disrespect for international law can also mean contempt for the U.S. Constitution. We are supposed to treat it with the same reverence we accord the Bible. Article VI of the Constitution establishes the UN Charter as “the supreme law of the land,” binding on elected officials, including, for example, every president who resorts to the threat of force (“all options are open”) — banned by the Charter. There are learned articles in the legal literature arguing that the words don’t mean what they say. They do.

It’s all too easy to continue. We have already discussed the fact that U.S. discourse includes scholarship and that it is now. de rigueur to reject the UN-based international order in favor of a “rule-based international order,” with the tacit understanding that the U.S. effectively set the rules.

Even if international law and the U.S. Constitution were to be followed, its reach would be limited. It would not reach as far as Russia’s horrendous Chechnya wars, levelling the capital city of Grozny, perhaps a hideous forecast for Kyiv unless a peace settlement is reached; or in the same years, Turkey’s war against Kurds, killing tens of thousands, destroying thousands of towns and villages, driving hundreds of thousands to miserable slums in Istanbul, all strongly supported by the Clinton administration which escalated its huge flow of arms as the crimes increased. International law does not bar the U.S. specialty of murderous sanctions to punish “successful defiance,” or stealing the funds of Afghans while they face mass starvation. Nor does it bar torturing a million children in Gaza or a million Uighurs sent to “re-education camps.” And all too much more.

How can this be improved? Not much is likely to be achieved by establishing a new “parchment barrier,” to borrow James Madison’s phrase, referring to mere words on paper. A more adequate framework of international order may be useful for educational and organizing purposes — as indeed international law is. However, it is not enough for victims to be protected. That can only be achieved by compelling the powerful to cease their crimes — or in the longer run, undermining their power altogether. That’s what many thousands of courageous Russians are doing right now in their remarkable efforts to impede Putin’s war machine. It’s what the Americans did in protesting the many violations of their state, facing less severe repression but with good effect, even if it was insufficient.

There are steps that can be taken to create a safer and more humane world order. The European Union, despite all its flaws is a significant step forward from what was before. The same holds true for the African Union, despite its limitations. The same holds true in the Western hemisphere for initiatives such as UNASUR [the Union of South American Nations]CELAC [the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States]The latter seeks Latin American-Caribbean integration independent of the U.S-dominated Organization of American States.

These questions are always present in some form or another. The crime could have been prevented almost immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There were two options that were well-understood: Austrian-style neutrality to Ukraine, and a Minsk II federalism that reflected the actual commitments made by Ukrainians on the ground. Washington did not feel pressure to seek peace. The Americans did not join the worldwide ridicule for the odes of sovereignty on the part the superpower that is in a separate class in its brutal contempt for the idea.

The options remain, but are now more limited after the criminal invasion.

Putin displayed the same reflexive resorting to violence, even though there were peaceful alternatives. It’s true that the U.S. continued to dismiss what even high U.S. officials and top-ranking diplomats have long understood to be legitimate Russian security concerns, but options other than criminal violence remained open. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observers had been reporting sharply increased violence in the Donbas region, which many — not just Russia — charge was largely at Ukrainian initiative. Putin could have tried to establish this charge, if it’s true, and brought it to international attention. This would have strengthened Putin’s position.

More significantly, Putin could have pursued the opportunities, which were real, to appeal to Germany and France to carry forward the prospects for a “common European home” along the lines proposed by De Gaulle and Gorbachev, a European system with no military alliances from the Atlantic to the Urals, even beyond, replacing the Atlanticist NATO-based system of subordination to Washington. This has been the central issue for a while, and it is becoming more urgent during the current crisis. A “common European home” offers many advantages to Europe. Intelligent diplomacy could have helped to improve the prospects.

Instead of seeking diplomatic options, Putin grabbed the revolver, a common reflex of power. The outcome is catastrophic for Ukraine, with the worst likely still to come. Washington will also be grateful for the outcome, as Putin has made it possible to establish the Atlanticist system more solidly than ever before. It is so welcome that some well-informed and sober analysts have already acknowledged it. speculated that it was Washington’s goal all along.

These matters should be a subject of serious consideration. One useful exercise is to compare the rare appearance of “jaw-jaw” with the deluge on “war-war,” to borrow Churchill’s rhetoric.

Perhaps peacemakers are indeed the blessed. If so, the good Lord doesn’t have to put in overtime hours.

Speaking of the need for a new global architecture and diplomatic practice to adopt to the present-day global dynamic, Putin repeated, in a recent telephone conversation he had with French President Emmanuel Macron, the list of Russia’s grievances against the West, and hinted at a way out of the crisis. Yet, there was, again, rejection of Putin’s demands and, even more inexplicably, complete suppression of this ray of light offered by Putin. Would you like to comment on this matter

It is not impossible, however. It is normal and predictable.

In the press report of Putin-Macron’s conversation was the routinely inflamatory headline about Putin’s goals. a brief report of what Putin actually said: “In its own readout of the call, the Kremlin said that Mr. Putin had told his French counterpart that his main goal was ‘the demilitarization and neutral status of Ukraine.’ Those goals, the Kremlin said, ‘will be achieved no matter what.’”

In a rational world this comment would be headlined. Commentators would call on Washington to seize the opportunity to end the invasion of Ukraine before a major catastrophe. This will devastate Ukraine and could even lead to war if Putin doesn’t offer an escape hatch from the disaster that he has caused. Instead, we’re hearing the usual “war-war” pronouncements, pretty much across the board, beginning with the renowned foreign policy analyst Thomas Friedman. Today The New York Times tough guy counsels, “Vladimir, you haven’t felt the half of it yet.”

Friedman’s essay is a celebration of the “cancellation of Mother Russia.” It may be usefully compared to his reaction to comparable or worse atrocities for which he shares responsibility. He is not the only one.

That’s how things are in a very free but deeply conformist intellectual culture.

A rational response to Putin’s reiteration of his “main goal” would be to take him up on it and to offer what has long been understood to be the basic framework for peaceful resolution: to repeat, “Austrian-style neutrality for Ukraine, some version of Minsk II federalism reflecting the actual commitments of Ukrainians on the ground.” Rationality would also entail doing this without the pathetic posturing about sovereign rights for which we have utter contempt — and which are not infringed any more than Mexico’s sovereignty is infringed by the fact that it cannot join a Chinese-based military alliance and host joint Mexico-China military maneuvers and Chinese offensive weapons aimed at the U.S.

All of this is possible, but it assumes something distant, a rational and, furthermore, a world where Washington isn’t gloating about Putin’s amazing gift to it: a subordinate Europe with no nonsense about escaping from the master.

We must remember that the message is the same as ever, and it is simple and clear. To create a sustainable world, we must do everything possible.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky condemned NATO’s decision not to close the sky over Ukraine. An understandable reaction given the catastrophe inflicted on his homeland by Russian armed forces, but wouldn’t a declaration of a no-fly zone be a step closer to World War III?

As you say, Zelensky’s plea is understandable. Responding to it would most likely lead to the destruction of Ukraine and other countries. It is incredible that it is even being discussed in the U.S. This idea is insane. A no-fly zone means that the U.S. Air Force would not only be attacking Russian planes but would also be bombing Russian ground installations that provide anti-aircraft support for Russian forces, with whatever “collateral damage” ensues. Is it really hard for you to understand the following?

China may be the only major power that can stop the war in Ukraine as it stands today. Washington seems to be keen to get the Chinese involved. Xi Jinping may be the only leader who can force Putin to reconsider his actions regarding Ukraine. Do you think China could play the role of a mediator between Russia and Ukraine? Perhaps even emerge as a global peace mediator soon?

China could try to assume this role, but it doesn’t seem likely. Chinese analysts can see as easily as we can that there had always been a way to avert catastrophe, along lines that we’ve discussed repeatedly in earlier interviews, briefly reiterated here. They can also see that while the options are diminished, it would still be possible to satisfy Putin’s “main goal” in ways that would be beneficial to all, infringing on no basic rights. They can also see that neither the U.S. government nor the commentariat are interested in their “main goal”. They may not see any incentive to jump in.

It’s not clear that they would even want to. They’re doing well enough by keeping out of the conflict. They are continuing to integrate much of the world within the China-based investment and development system, with Turkey — a NATO member — very possible next in line.

China also knows that the Global South has little taste for “canceling Mother Russia” but would prefer to maintain relations. Although the South may feel the same horror at the cruelty of the invasions, their experiences are not the same as those of Europe and America. They are, afterall, the usual targets of European-U.S. cruelty, alongside of which the suffering in Ukraine is hardly notable. The experiences and memories are shared by China from its “century of humiliation” and far more.

China understands this better than the West, although they may not be able to see it. I presume that they’ll keep their distance and proceed on their current path.

If all diplomatic efforts fail, can Russia really occupy a country the size Ukraine? Couldn’t Ukraine become Putin’s Afghanistan? Indeed, back in December 2021, the head of the Russian Academy of Science’s Center for Ukrainian Research, Viktor Mironenko, warned that Ukraine could become another Afghanistan. What are your thoughts about this matter? Hasn’t Putin learned any lessons from Afghanistan?

If Russia occupies Ukraine it will be like a picnic at the park.

Keep in mind that the facts of each case are different. The documentary record reveals that Russia invaded Afghanistan very reluctantly, several months after President Carter authorized the CIA to “provide … support to the Afghan insurgents” who were opposing a Russian-backed government — with the strong support if not initiative of National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, as he later proudly declared. There was no basis to the frenzied pronouncements regarding Russian plans for taking over the Middle East or beyond. Again, George Kennan’s quite isolated rejection of these claims was astute and accurate.

The U.S. provided strong support for the Mujahideen who were resisting the Russian invasion, not in order to help liberate Afghanistan but rather to “kill Soviet Soldiers,” as explained by the CIA station chief in Islamabad who was running the operation.

For Russia, the cost was terrible, though of course, hardly a fraction of what Afghanistan suffered — continuing when the U.S.-backed Islamic fundamentalists ravaged the country after the Russians withdrew.

One can’t help but wonder what the occupation of Ukraine would do for its people and, if anything, the world.

It can be avoided. This is the key point.