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These no-fly zone polls still won’t fly

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson climbs into a military airplane on Feb. 17. (AFP/Getty Images)
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Last week, when yet another new poll suggested Americans strongly favored imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, we pleaded with pollsters: How about we tell people what that would actually mean — i.e. something akin to a declaration of war with Russia — and then see where support lands?

Thankfully, a pollster has stepped forward to assist. Unfortunately, we probably still don’t really know the answer.

In a pair of new polls, YouGov noted to respondents what this would was likely to entail: Shooting down Russian planes. But curiously, that seemed to depress support in one poll, while making very little difference in the other.

Its poll for U.S. News and World Report asked separate questions to half of its sample (emphasis added):

  1. “Would you support or oppose the U.S. enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine?” and
  2. “Would you support or oppose the U.S. enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would mean the U.S. military would shoot down Russian military planes flying over Ukraine?

Rather remarkably, the prospect of us shooting down Russian planes had almost no impact on support — though it did drive up opposition modestly. In both cases, 42 percent supported the no-fly zone. In the latter case, opposition rose from 28 percent to 33 percent. (Those who “strongly” supported it also declined — but only a little.) In other words, it seemed that people who want a no-fly zone generally are okay with the prospect of shooting down Russian planes.

Or so it would seem.

In a separate YouGov poll for the Economist, the pollster got at this in a different way. It asked two questions of its entire sample:

  1. “Do you think each of the following courses of action is a good idea or a bad idea?” and then, two questions later,
  2. “Should the U.S. military shoot down Russian military planes flying over Ukraine?”

In this case, there was a more significant difference and a drop in support. While Americans favored the undefined no-fly zone 40 to 30 percent — similar to the other poll — they actually opposed shooting down Russian planes 46 to 30 percent. Fully 28 percent of people who say they want a no-fly zone also don’t want to shoot down Russian planes (which a no-fly zone would, in all likelihood, entail).

What could account for the difference between the two polls? Both polls asked about shooting down Russian planes, but the second showed significantly less support for doing so. One possibility emerges: The second poll didn’t explicitly connect this to the no-fly zone. So maybe 4 in 10 Americans support shooting down Russian planes in the context of enforcing the no-fly zone, but generally don’t like the idea of doing this just because. That makes some sense.

Alas, even apart from the diverging results, we probably still don’t have a great handle on whether support for a no-fly zone would survive these very serious eventualities. That’s because it’s not just that we would be shooting down Russian planes; it’s that we would be, for all intents and purposes, going to war with Russia. If this were just about shooting a few planes out of the sky in the name of protecting Ukrainians, great, but with that comes myriad other consequences.

As we wrote last week, no-fly zones — and especially one involving Russia — would be extremely difficult to enforce and could lead to a much-broader conflict being triggered, whether intentionally or otherwise. One expert summarized: “Do you shoot down all Russian air traffic? How do you identify friend or foe? Do you take out any ground source that paints you with target acquisition radar?” Another: “Risks are both intentional escalation and inadvertent incident that could ratchet up.”

Even serious and studied supporters of a no-fly zone, like former NATO commander Philip Breedlove, concede that means a likely war. Breedlove said, “The reality of a no-fly zone is — it is an act of war.”

And when you put it like that, it’s likely support would drop even more significantly — given how much Americans don’t want the U.S. to be at war. These polls make clear that others showing support for no-fly zones as high as 74 percent are overcooked. It’s difficult to summarize the consequences of this succinctly to people. But it’s pretty safe to say we still don’t have the full picture.