March 3, 2022

A No-fly Zone is No Solution

A Royal Air Force Typhoon jet (bottom) flying by a Russian SU-30 Flanker fighter. In Estonia, June 2019.
A Royal Air Force Typhoon jet (bottom) flying by a Russian SU-30 Flanker fighter. In Estonia, June 2019.

There have been calls, including from Kyiv, for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

NATO has employed no-fly zones in previous conflicts. It enforced one over Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992, which led to NATO’s first ever combat action—the shooting down of four J-21 Bosnian Serb Jastreb jets—as well as the destruction of air defence sites and other ground and air assets. NATO also enforced a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011. Both operations were authorised by resolutions of the UN Security Council in entirely different strategic contexts to those we see today.

Enforcing a full or partial no-fly zone over Ukraine would be a colossal step up in NATO’s involvement in the war. It would require NATO aircraft to directly engage in combat with Russian aircraft, to attack Russian and Belarusian air defence systems on the ground, some of them on Russian and Belarusian territory, and perhaps also to attack airbases and air and sea platforms launching cruise missiles into Ukraine from beyond its borders. Russia would inevitably respond, and events would very quickly become unpredictable, perhaps dire. Putin himself has threatened the west with a nuclear response to an attack on Russia. Wise voices have pointed out that there should be no doubt of his readiness to use nuclear weapons.

The narrative would quickly change from Putin’s war of aggression against brother and sister Slavs to Russia’s heroic defence of the motherland against a NATO offensive. Any hopes that Putin might be defeated from within, either at the hands of a discontented population or sanctioned elites, would be shattered.

There are also military considerations. Officials and analysts have been surprised that, beyond the day-one cruise and ballistic missile attacks, against which combat aircraft enforcing a no-fly zone would in any case be ineffective, Russia has been reasonably restrained in its use of airpower. So far, Ukraine has been able to continue some air operations, and its air defence capability, including donated Stinger systems, has remained partly operational. But Ukraine’s current use of its own airspace would also be cut off by a no-fly zone. Furthermore, many of Russia’s attacks against infrastructure and populations have been carried out by ground-based rocket and artillery systems, which would be unaffected by a no-fly zone.

NATO well understands the risks. Although the Alliance has vowed to defend all its members and has taken concrete measures to enhance deterrence on its eastern flank, NATO and Allies individually have made very clear that they will not take military action in the air or on the ground to defend Ukraine. In February, Joe Biden even ruled out the use of military support to an evacuation of US citizens. Poland will not, as had been announced by Ukrainian media, allow Ukrainian pilots to operate from Polish airbases; in fact, Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria will not even send Soviet-era combat aircraft to Ukraine.

Unless things change dramatically, NATO will not carry out any form of combat operation in or in support of Ukraine as this would mean war with Russia. Those outside Ukraine who urge it to do so claim strength and honour where others display weakness and moral ambiguity. But they themselves can be safe in the knowledge that they will not have to face the consequences of the courses they advocate.

NATO is not helpless. It has less risky (though not risk-free) options worth serious consideration. The Allies can continue, even step up the supply of military equipment to Ukraine. They can as EU defence ministers have agreed provide more intelligence. They can consider the use of military assets to supply humanitarian assistance, Berlin airlift-style, forcing Putin to decide whether he wants to start a NATO-Russia conflict.

It is appalling that states must deny direct support to their friends, even as leaderships and populations cry out for help in the face of unprovoked aggression. It is sickening to be deterred by a bully. But this is not appeasement. At this point, the risks of a NATO no-fly zone are simply too great to countenance. We should focus on what we can do, not fantasise about what we cannot.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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