Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

The SNP and the No Fly Zone

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Jonathon Shafi takes a closer look at SNP leaders’ foreign policy statements of recent days. He finds a deeply irresponsible and unserious attitude.

Something happened yesterday which I really do think merits attention and some detailed analysis. The issue has been covered in the Scottish press at a fairly superficial level. So we need some further examination.

I am referring to the comments made by the First Minster and the Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development, Neil Gray, about a No Fly Zone in relation to the war in Ukraine.

In both cases the response to questions about a No Fly Zone, was that it should be kept on the table. This is seriously misjudged, and in my view highlights a lack of seriousness around the whole issue and foreign policy in general.

But I think it is important to explain why. A No Fly Zone would bring Nato into direct conflict with Russia over Ukraine. It would mark not simply an escalation of the war, but an unfathomable scenario which could result in a rapid expansion of war in Europe.

Given the abundance of material available on the consequences of a No Fly Zone one wonders who on earth is advising the First Minister. It is worth reading this thread by Ben Judah, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council:

“I am horrified it needs to be stated a “No Fly Zone” is catastrophically stupid and would involve direct aerial combat with Russia for the skies of Ukraine, direct intervention for which Putin has threatened nuclear war.

“Those pushing this are not professional, responsible or sane. I want to remind those proposing it – a “No Fly Zone” would be an act of war against Russia which would result in the complete destruction of Ukraine: its churches, its people and its millions of lives.

“I want those, especially those in the media and in think tanks, pushing “No Fly Zone” as a careless slogan to learn what it means: direct allied military engagement to establish air dominance. I want them to think with their heads to save Ukraine not splutter with their mouths.

“I would like those reporting on this or seeing it posted on Twitter to challenge them with a simple question: do you realise what you are proposing is direct war with Russia? Or do you simply not care? Words have no meaning for you in the heat of the moment?”

Nicola Sturgeon is not, of course, a columnist, Twitter personality or Think Tank spokesperson. Her job is to represent Scotland as the elected First Minister. We should expect on that basis at least the bare minimum of due diligence when we are talking about matters of war and peace.

There are moments where very wide cross-sections of opinion can overlap. Sometimes this is because there are policy positions that are so utterly disastrous that they transcend many other deeply felt political differences. Opposing a No Fly Zone is precisely one of those examples, since the outcome is so dangerous to global security and peace.

Nuclear exchange

It is possible to fall into a psychological trap when we even begin to consider the notion of a nuclear exchange. Perhaps it is an event so unimaginably monstrous that we in some way have to remove it as a serious possibility.

To be clear, I don’t think we are on the verge of a nuclear war. But I do think – and this is important – that making certain wrong moves can increase the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons.

As Peter Harris, an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, explains:

“If there was a hot conflict between Russia and a Nato member, then ultimately nuclear weapons are on the table. Whether people like it or not, that’s always a possibility. And leaders cannot credibly promise that they will not escalate to the use of nuclear weapons because events can take on a life of their own and escape the control of those in charge.”

By entertaining a No Fly Zone Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP (though having spoken to a range of SNP members about this, they certainly don’t agree) seem not to have thought the position through. Well, we simply must assume that this is an ill-conceived posture and not anything approaching a serious strategy.

Forgoing a full on nuclear exchange, we would certainly be in the realms of war between the Nato powers and Russia. That is a war that could easily spill over to other parts of Europe, especially in countries near Ukraine that would likely host the logistical operations required to maintain a No Fly Zone. In that context the logic of escalation becomes hardwired into a widening war.

As Eric Levitz outlines:

“The hazards of a war between Nato and Russia are vast and undeniable. Great-power conflicts in Eurasia claimed the lives of over 100 million people last century, and nearly all of those deaths came in the preatomic age. Today, war between Russia and Western Europe would jeopardize nothing less than humanity’s long-term survival.”

It strikes a deeply unserious tone to stumble into the kind of territory that demands a defence of a deadly extension of the war. But that is where the insistence that a No Fly Zone should be kept as an active consideration can end up.

Nuclear disarmament: A preamble to conventional war?

All of this should have the Scottish peace movement – around which many cadres of Scottish nationalism cut their teeth politically – deeply worried. Unfortunately the cause for concern doesn’t end with the No Fly Zone.

It was always going to be interesting to see how the SNP leadership would deal with the question of Trident in a period like this. To be honest, I was mistaken about the approach they seem to have taken. I expected a simple re-stating of their historic position, and only to do this when asked, rather than actively seeking to promote the issue.

Astoundingly, the position seems to be the following: nuclear weapons are hindering a wider conventional war. In the First Minister’s own words:

“Perhaps the only thing nuclear weapons are deterring is the ability to properly and directly help Ukraine”.

Similar sentiments were outlined by the SNP Defence Spokesperson Stewart McDonald on a BBC panel. By ‘properly help’ we can assume this means a more direct form of conflict between Nato and Russia.

So, the way to sell nuclear disarmament it seems, is to say that it clears the space for conventional warfare. It also strikes a rather multilateralist tone. The logic here just wouldn’t make sense otherwise. Because for the above formulation to make any sense, we would need a world free of nuclear weapons, in order to, er, pursue ground and air wars between the major powers.

To turn the abolition of nuclear weapons into a preamble for conventional war is the very antithesis of the peace movement and a betrayal of the values and world view of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

To say a No Fly Zone should be kept on the agenda is also in direct contradiction to the demands of the peace movement in the here and now.

But then, you don’t have to be a peacenik to oppose such disastrous folly.

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