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Opinion Why Biden’s response to Zelensky’s no-fly zone request was so wise

In a speech to Congress on March 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky again asked for a no-fly zone to protect against Russia’s attacks. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky played on America’s desire to be “the leader of the world” when he implored Congress on Wednesday to support a no-fly zone. Making references to the Declaration of Independence, Mount Rushmore and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he explained how his country has faced the equivalent of a Sept. 11 or Pearl Harbor every night for three weeks. “In your great history, you have pages that would allow you to understand Ukrainians,” Zelensky said.

Wearing the olive-green T-shirt that has become his wartime uniform, and appearing virtually from a capital that’s under siege, Zelensky was David asking us to join his fight against Goliath. Make no mistake: That’s what the no-fly zone he wants would mean — a hot war between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.

President Biden’s greatest skill is showing empathy, but the current crisis has proved that he’s also capable of hardheadedness. We must be clear-eyed about where our interests align with — but also diverge from — Ukraine’s. We climb the escalation ladder at our peril. That’s why Biden’s response to Zelensky was so wise: The most we can realistically do is give David more slingshots.

Zelensky told Congress that new institutions are necessary to keep up with the times. He proposed what he called U-24, an alliance that would respond like firefighters to global blazes within 24 hours. What he described sounded like a mix of a modern-day League of Nations and something Aaron Sorkin would have written into an episode of “The West Wing.” He’s touting this idea because Ukraine is not a member of NATO or the European Union.

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Biden has made clear that his red line is NATO and that the United States will fight to defend “every inch” of member countries. The attack on Kyiv, grievous as it is, is not an attack on Berlin, Paris or London. We are not obligated by treaty to respond. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin almost certainly wouldn’t have risked an invasion of Ukraine if it were in the alliance.

American and Ukrainian interests overlap, to be sure, but not entirely. While Zelensky and Biden share an interest in making sure this war never becomes a victory for Putin, people in Washington and Kyiv likely differ in their interpretations of what constitutes defeat for Moscow. Americans might be somewhat satisfied if Putin paid such a high price in blood and treasure from this misadventure that he’s scared off from directly challenging NATO members. The Baltic states would be able to breathe easier in that scenario, but Ukrainians will consider anything less than maintaining their sovereignty to be a failure.

The domestic politics of this have become pretty clear, which is why neither Republican nor Democratic congressional leaders support the no-fly zone. A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday finds 77 percent of Americans back keeping large numbers of U.S. troops in NATO countries near Ukraine, but only 35 percent support taking military action “even if it risks a nuclear conflict with Russia.” Only 12 percent of respondents “strongly” favor that latter approach.

With that in mind, Zelensky acknowledged during his speech that the no-fly zone might be too much for the United States to stomach before asking for more equipment and stiffer sanctions.

When Biden addressed the country a few hours after Zelensky, his tone was unmistakably measured. He didn’t even acknowledge the no-fly-zone request. And he made clear that this is Ukraine’s fight, not ours. “We are united in our abhorrence of Putin’s depraved onslaught,” Biden said, “and we’re going to continue to have their back as they fight — for their freedom, their democracy, their very survival.”

But the American president also emphasized that the United States sent $650 million in weapons to Ukraine last year and has provided another $1 billion in security assistance within the past week. The new package he announced includes 800 antiaircraft weapons, 9,000 anti-armor weapons, 7,000 small arms, 20 million rounds of ammunition and an unspecified number of drones.

That’s not beanbag. But it is not a declaration of war, either. If Zelensky has incentives to pull the United States deeper into this war, Biden has good reasons to resist getting sucked into what he fears would become World War III.