[Epistemic status: My best analysis from purely public sources on a constantly changing conflict in an actively adversarial epistemic environment. I have no special knowledge or expertise.]

This is a linkpost for this post by Justin Bronk, a research fellow at RUSI, a British conflict analysis think-tank. ~7 minute read. It is some of the most clearheaded and enlightening analysis I have seen so far of the current geopolitical situation in regards to Ukraine and the line the West is walking. The first part talks about the military arguments, and is more detailed but mostly in line with the mainstream commentary; it's the second part, on the political arguments, that is really insightful. The article was also summarized nicely by Justin in this interview, starting at 40:27, running about 9 minutes. The first part of the interview is great too.

"A NFZ [No-Fly-Zone] would gift Putin with a retroactive justification for the invasion by giving him the ‘NATO intervention’ which Kremlin propaganda has consistently sought to claim it was pre-empting by invading Ukraine. It would give the Russian Army a military opponent that could more credibly be used to explain away its heavy losses and lacklustre performance against its far smaller neighbour. It would also generate a rally-behind-the-flag effect which would stifle domestic protests, provide an excuse for even greater repressive brutality in Russia and thereby prolong the Russian state’s ability to continue active hostilities. In short, an NFZ could save Putin’s regime from a disaster that currently threatens to end it."

Everyone wants to help Ukraine. No one wants WW3. As a practical military matter an NFZ is simply a euphemism for war with Russia, both Biden and Stoltenberg and Putin have consistently been crystal clear on this, which makes it self-fulfilling. If NATO/US decides to enter the war, it might as well just do it properly, rather than hobbling itself to only engage air-targets. But as things are currently going, this isn't even the greatest threat to Ukraine. Russia doesn't have air-superiority. Most of the heavy weapons we are seeing are rockets and artillery, not from aircraft. The Russian forces have proved unable to coordinate close-air-support for it's ground forces. Yet enforcing an NFZ would require a massive, aggressive operation, including taking out SAM installations far into Russian and Belarusian territory. Only the US has the power to do this. And no matter how that would be played politically, be it a NATO Article 5 after some stray rocket, or a UN resolution (that Russia would veto) or anything else, the end result that everyone would see, in every news feed the world over, would be the US fighting Russia. And suddenly Putin would be proven right about all his talk of the west being a threat to Russian security, or at least right enough to rally support at home, and probably support from China, as well as motivating him to declare martial law and mobilize all Russian reserves; and on the other side, the unity of the rest of the world would most likely shatter, countries like Sweden and Switzerland who currently wholeheartedly support the effort to help Ukraine would get cold feet and protest. Right now, everyone is clearly seeing a bully committing atrocities. In that case, everyone would see two superpowers at war.

Whereas currently, Putin is continuing to dig his own grave at an astonishing rate.

 “Never Interrupt Your Enemy When He Is Making A Mistake” -Sun Tzu

The tragedy of course, is all the other lives he is taking down with him.

So, why does Zelenskyy keep asking for a No-FLy-Zone? Surely, he knows that a No-Fly-Zone is both untenable militarily, and impossible politically. Everyone has been explaining it for weeks now. Yet he keeps asking it, loudly and persistently.

Of course, for Ukraine the war is already here, whether or not it will be called WW3 in the history books, so in that regard he has everything to gain and nothing to lose from draging NATO/US into the war. (Except that WW3 would presumably be vastly more destructive, especially for Ukraine if it becomes it's first/major battleground. But the logic still holds.)

Yet he isn't asking NATO to send troops, or bomb Moscow, or even to shoot down Russian planes; He asks specifically for the No-Fly-Zone. Repeatedly and loudly and consistently. It's a vague but plausible-sounding request, abstract enough and hard enough to understand and far-mode enough that lots of people who wouldn't call for WW3 will rally around this one, oddly specific, completely misplaced strategy as their rallying cry. Random refugees and protesters all over the world has taken up the cry. I think the point is specifically what Zvi brought up in his recent analysis: To have the masses call for something the leaders of the west can't and won't do, meaning 1; that they have to scramble to do everything else that they can do to compensate and still be seen to "do everything we can", and 2; their own voters are giving them all the political leverage they need to pull it off, both domestically and geopolitically. I don't know if Zelenskyy expects to ever get that one specific thing, but he's here to win the war, not to "close the skies" specifically

Idk, just a thought.

This is only my take, apply salt as needed. I am but a lone keyboard warrior in a big big sea of history, propaganda and geopolitics.

(While writing this I couldn't make up my mind whether people would think of the title as click-bait. I still can't. Please let me know what you think.)
(Edit for spelling)

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In Zelenskyy's latest appeal to congress, he offered an alternative to a No Fly Zone, which is massive support for AA equipment and additional fighters.  By creating pressure for a NFZ, he's bought himself significant AA equipment boosts.

I agree with the political analysis of Zelensky's strategy, but I disagree with the title. I believe a direct war between NATO and Russia would be catastrophic for Russia. The United States alone would dominate Russia's forces on the conventional battlefield. Yes, such a conflict would increase domestic support for Putin's regime, but at the cost of fighting a war with a technologically superior enemy (the USA). The Russian military is advancing at a snail's pace through Ukraine. If the US joined the fray (even just via air support) then the Russian conventional military would be annihilated.

Putin getting proven right on the world stage is inconsequential compared to getting his military getting massacred by United States' precision munitions. If the war stays conventional (doesn't go nuclear) then Russia loses the war. If the war goes nuclear then Russia (and the US) loses even more.

I'm not saying the US should impart a no fly zone. The US is keeping its troops from direct involvement because direct war with Russia could too easily escalate into ICBMs landing in New York.

You are of course entirely correct. 

I suppose the would-be-good-for-Putin take relies on a limited conflict with the US, which feels unlikely at best. 

That Russia's conventional armed forces is entirely outclassed in every conceivable way by the US, virtually guarantees that it wouldn't stay conventional.


Whereas currently, Putin is continuing to dig his own grave at an astonishing rate.

I feel like there is a bit of wishful thinking going on here. Yes, the war on the ground is not going as planned for Putin, and yes, Russian economy is getting hit hard; you can back up these claims with lots of evidence and repeat 10,000 times. But most analysts I've seen still believe - after trashing Russian military for their incompetence first of course - that Russia will eventually win the war through superior firepower and sheer numbers. So one still has to ask the question "What's our endgame?"

There is also the problem of Putin deciding to use chemical or tactical nuclear weapons if Russia is genuinely losing the war or entering a stalemate. What's our contingency in that case?

I'll grant that it'a an optimistic take. I have certainly seen military analysts say that Putin won't be able to keep it up for very long, or won't be able to hold the territory even if he does manage to grind the cities to rubble, like retired US Lt. Gen. Hodges, or indeed the linked article. But I'm sure the Russian armed forces could just keep shelling and bombing, and never really loose in the conventional sense, barring large scale desertion. But it's political suicide for Putin to do that. Just like it is suicide for him to give up right now. One potential out from that dilemma might be for him to escalate like you say, and therefore it is of paramount importance that we don't give him any excuse to do that. This might not stop him, he certainly has a track record of escalating all by himself, but without an excuse that is political suicide too. Hence the comment of digging his own grave. The tragedy of course, is all the other lives he is taking down with him. On both sides, I certainly don't blame the Russian conscripts in this. 

What our contingency should be if he does escalate is a tougher question. There I don't know. Maybe that's the time to enter militarily, after it's been thoroughly established that he escalated first. Or maybe not, I don't know. You are right, it does beg the question.


When you say "political suicide", what exactly do you mean? I understand the term in the context of democratic countries; it means the person in question will lose the next election or be removed from office through impeachment/vote of no confidence. In the context of authoritarian countries, it usually means popular uprising or palace coup, but neither seems very likely. For comparison, the North Korea regime has been committing "political suicide" for decades, isolated diplomatically and economically and yet Kim Jong-Un is worshipped as a god.

I think a better way to express 'political suicide' is "The way Russia will have to prosecute the Ukraine campaign to win the military conflict, will assure the political objectives that were the reason for the war in the first place can not be achieved."

A video from 4 days after the invasion that I think holds up. Start at 44 minutes. There's a good tactical summary at 25 minutes too.

This is a good point, I have been using that term very loosely. I guess what I mean is a massive loss of support and legitimacy, as we have indeed seen already. I agree that for a dictator this probably means a shift to a more authoritarian style before it means being ousted, and that the likelihood of a coup depends in large part on things like palace security. 

North Korea is indeed a chilling example, and Russia's new economic reality has already been widely compared to North Korea in mainstream media. I think Russia has enough widespread internet access, and not enough Putin-worship for the comparison to hold very far, but it can indeed get very ugly in the meantime.

As for that prediction market, that looks low to me, considering how it's worded. I'd expect at least that much chance of Putin dying a natural death before 2024, and that might well be described as a "regime change" by popular media, so that leaves no room for a coup. Also the fine print stating that it doesn't count if Putin "voluntarily resigns", is very vague, and indeed a way he might try to make it look if he sees that he is loosing power. Still I'm updating some.

The title is click-bait-adjacent, but I don't think it's 'the bad kind of click-bait'. The bad kind is where the title could have been a lot more informative, but they purposefully chose not to so you'd have to click through. e.g. one I remember recently was something like "Russia announces the fate of the American on the ISS" - it could have been "Russia will not strand the American on the ISS" (which is also shorter than the original title!) but then the key question would be answered so folks wouldn't feel the same need to read the article. Whereas for yours, I don't see a good way to either a) answer the question it raises without also making the title unreasonably long, or b) remove the click-baity 'unanswered question' feel without also making the title a less good indicator of the post contents.

Yeah, I guess that sums it up and explains why I felt a little bit uneasy with it. After taking Lsusr's comment into account, I think the title would have been more like "Why a No-Fly-Zone might benefit Putin, and Why Zelenskyy keeps asking for it".

How do you feel about click-bait-adjacent titles? I can't make up my mind.

I think that proposed title is better, though that's primarily because it's more accurate and a little shorter, not because it's less click-baity.

As for how I feel about it... the same worm can be 'bait' if attached to a hook, and 'free food, thanks!' if thrown in the water? In this particular case I'm completely fine with your title - you raised an interesting seeming-paradox about a topic I already care about, and then followed through quite well. I don't know how well that turns into an actionable rule though - you can't know in advance that I (or your median reader or whatever) will appreciate the post and endorse-with-hindsight having read it? But I'd say there's no need to change your style for now until/unless you get complaints.

Thanks for your feedback :)

So, why does Zelenskyy keep asking for a No-FLy-Zone? Surely, he knows that a No-Fly-Zone is both untenable militarily, and impossible politically.

I don't think we can be sure about this. Keep in mind he had no political, military, or diplomatic background coming into the presidency - he was an actor. I don't see any reason to believe he understands this any more than the alarming number of people who keep calling for a No Fly Zone specifically.

That being said, it seems like a sound negotiating tactic, as ChosunOne pointed out: he asks for something popular but impossible, and gets something not popular but valuable instead.

"he was an actor. I don't see any reason to believe he understands this"

This is of course true. But surely he has people around him who are experts? And foreign advisors? And surely the specifics of what gets delivered is negotiated behind closed doors (excepting certain Polish Mig29s), when it can be explained in full detail. I mean, every mainstream news outlet has explained this again and again for over two weeks, it's not missable. And it sure seems to be working.

Thank you so much for this, I was really confused about Zelinsky’s request for a NFZ until now (since as pointed out, it’s oddly specific, wouldn’t help much, and could make things worse). If this analysis is correct, it’s a genius (if risky) political move, and one that seems to be working. I wonder if most politicians are working under the same assumptions we are…

Thank you :)

See also this much more in-depth and well researched analysis of nuclear deterrence in general, and how it applies to the situation in Ukraine in particular. And this other post by the same author posted on the day of the invasion, already then presenting a picture clearer than I hold now.