In the first weeks of war, Western military aid and fierce Ukrainian resistance have made the conflict a somewhat fairer fight. Russia has captured just one city, and Ukrainian forces have slowed Russia’s military advance to a crawl. But as the civilian toll rises and the Russian military steps up its targeting of Ukraine’s urban centers, there are calls for Ukraine’s allies to do more. And one idea is getting most of the attention.
Ukraine’s leaders want NATO to impose a no-fly zone over their country, preventing Russia from using air power. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy makes the case for a no-fly zone every day — most recently in a virtual address to Britain’s Parliament in which he asked the U.K. to “make sure that our skies are safe.” He has also said that Western leaders would have blood on their hands if one wasn’t implemented. In an open letter Tuesday, a group of prominent U.S. national security figures including former ambassadors and Philip Breedlove, the former supreme allied commander for Europe, called for a “limited” no-fly zone, starting with the humanitarian corridors that were agreed to by Ukraine and Russia. In an instantly viral clip, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was beseeched to set up a no-fly zone by Ukrainian activist Daria Kaleniuk at a news conference last week.
The governments involved are firmly rejecting the idea. The Pentagon and White House have said it is not in the cards, with press secretary Jen Psaki calling it “not a good idea” and “definitely escalatory.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has also dismissed the notion, saying, “We are not part of this conflict.”
What is a no-fly zone? How is it implemented? And why is it considered so dangerous?
No-fly zones: how they work
No-fly zones refer to operations in which an outside military power declares a certain territory off-limits to aircraft in order to discourage military conflict or atrocities against civilians. Typically, the country or alliance imposing the zone has overwhelming air superiority.
Aircraft from the enforcing country generally run continuous sorties to monitor the zone and detect and respond to violations. While in the air, these craft are vulnerable to fire from air defense systems on the ground. The logistical difficulties of maintaining such a zone over the entirety of a country the size of Ukraine would be substantial; even doing so for a smaller area would involve a major operation and significant risk.
“A no-fly zone is a willingness to shoot down an aircraft that is operating in contravention of the zone,” Jeremiah Gertler, a longtime military aviation analyst who directs the Defense Concepts Organization, a consultancy, told Grid. “When people are saying, ‘We should have an no-fly zone in Ukraine,’ they are saying we should be willing to shoot down Russian aircraft.”
A 30-year history
The first time this tactic was used was in Iraq in 1991. At the end of Gulf War, after the U.S. and its allies reversed Saddam Hussein’s capture of Kuwait, U.S., British and French forces imposed a no-fly zone over the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Operation Provide Comfort and its successor, Operation Northern Watch, were designed to prevent a repeat of incidents like the 1988 Halabja massacre, an airborne chemical weapons attack that killed more than 3,000 Kurdish civilians. A similar operation, Operation Southern Watch, was launched in 1992 to protect Shiite areas of southern Iraq. Both zones remained in effect until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In Operation Deny Flight, from 1993 to 1995, NATO imposed a no-fly zone in the airspace over Bosnia and Herzegovina, in this case to protect Bosnian civilians from Serbian aircraft and allow the delivery of humanitarian aid.
In Libya in 2011, after a U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing force to protect civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s military, the U.S. and NATO allies launched Operation Odyssey Dawn, imposing a no-fly zone over the country.
All these missions ultimately involved aerial combat. The U.S. shot down Iraqi aircraft and targeted Iraqi anti-aircraft and radar installations while enforcing its no-fly zones there. In the 1994 “Banja Luka incident,” U.S. F-16s shot down four Bosnian Serb planes after more than 1,000 violations of the no-fly zone. It was the first offensive action in NATO’s history. In 1995, a U.S. F-16 was shot down over Bosnia, requiring a search-and-rescue mission for the pilot. The operation eventually evolved into Deliberate Force, a bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb forces.
As for Odyssey Dawn, that mission evolved into a campaign to strike Libyan government forces on the ground who were attacking civilian areas, leading to the eventual overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime.
One important similarity between all these missions: The U.S. and its allies enjoyed overwhelming military superiority. The Iraqi, Serbian and Libyan militaries weren’t much of a threat beyond where they were already fighting.
Dangers of a no-fly zone over Ukraine
The U.S. and its NATO allies hold no such overwhelming advantage over Russia, which has a million-strong military and the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already hinted ominously that he is willing to choose the nuclear option if Western countries “create threats for our country.” Putin said last week that he would view a no-fly zone as a threat and that countries that imposed one would be viewed as “participants of the military conflict.”
For some advocates of a no-fly zone, the risk of escalation is less than the risk of letting Russia’s aggression continue unchecked. “This is already World War III,” the exiled Russian chess champion and dissident Garry Kasparov has said. But it’s also possible that many of those who say they support a zone — 74 percent of Americans according to one recent poll — don’t quite grasp what it would entail.
“A no-fly zone is a euphemism that conceals the realities of what these operations might actually entail. A no-fly zone is simply war with Russia by another name,” Brian Finucane, a former State Department legal adviser now with the International Crisis Group, told Grid.
That reality would include NATO planes on 24/7 missions over the war zone, and then a call to NATO fighter jets to pursue — and if need be shoot down — Russian aircraft in the skies over Ukraine. It could also involve NATO planes taking exchanging fire with Russian air defense systems on the ground. It is easy to see how quickly the patrols might lead to a direct NATO-Russia war.
Beyond the risks of escalation, it’s also not clear that closing Ukraine’s airspace would be the most effective way to prevent atrocities. The Russian military has made surprisingly little use of air power so far in the war and is fully capable of targeting Ukrainian cities with powerful ground-based artillery. It’s worth recalling that the worst instance of genocide in Europe since the Holocaust, the killing of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, was carried out by ground forces underneath a NATO no-fly zone.
Still, as the war grinds on, so will calls for NATO to do more to protect civilians. The horrors already seen in Mariupol and Kharkiv may soon be repeated in other parts of Ukraine, and many have already invoked the memories of Russian assaults on the Chechen capital, Grozny, in the 1990s and the Syrian city of Aleppo in 2016. It won’t just be Zelenskiy and his fellow Ukrainians demanding that the world do something.
Perhaps the political scientist Seva Gunitsky put it best when he wrote on Twitter recently, “the people calling for a no-fly zone should explicitly say they are willing to risk nuclear war and the people calling for backing off should explicitly say they are willing to tolerate war crimes. there is no moral high ground for anyone here.”