Prohibiting Russian planes and missiles from flying over Ukraine would help protect civilians and obstruct part of Russia’s war campaign. So far President Biden, the chief of NATO and other allies have resisted the appeals for a no-fly zone citing the logistical challenges and the risk of coming into direct conflict with the Russian military.
Since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24, the Biden administration and its European allies have taken actions that before the war they said were unlikely. Those included cutting Russian banks from the global financial messaging system known as Swift and targeting Russia’s energy exports.
Pressure to do more is likely to grow in Western capitals as Russia escalates efforts to capture the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and other major cities, likely launching artillery and missile strikes on residential areas. Already, more than 2 million Ukrainians have fled the country since the war began and another 1 million have left their homes and are internally displaced, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
What is a no-fly zone?
A no-fly zone restricts airspace, banning planes from flying over a defined area. No-fly zones have been used in previous conflicts to protect civilians, in some instances, by preventing governments from flying inside their national airspace. At its maximum, a no-fly zone wouldn’t only cover planes but also missiles.
Enforcing such no-fly zones is logistically demanding, requiring constant aerial patrols and the other aircraft, equipment and personnel to support them. In the case of Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO could face a Russia that is unwilling to comply with a no-fly zone and, with a sizable air force, continues to fly aircraft over Ukraine. Russia could also target aircraft conducting patrols in the no-fly zone.
U.S. and NATO officials estimate that enforcement would require as many as several hundred planes and, as an additional challenge, would necessitate coordination by air forces from multiple nations in the 30-country alliance.
Patriot and other antimissile batteries would also have to be deployed to protect U.S. and allied aircraft in the no-fly zone from Russian missile strikes. Russia’s missile systems are able to target all Ukraine, according to U.S. defense and European officials.
Why are the U.S. and NATO resisting imposing a no-fly zone?
Aside from the logistical challenges of enforcement, U.S., European and NATO leaders say enforcing a no-fly zone would risk drawing the West into war with Russia. In the months before the invasion as Russia built up military forces around Ukraine, the Biden administration and NATO have said they wouldn’t commit forces to defend Ukraine. A no-fly zone, they argue, would risk crossing a line, veering into direct confrontation.
“It would essentially mean the U.S. military would be shooting down planes—Russian planes. That is definitely escalatory. That would potentially put us into a place where we`re in a military conflict with Russia,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a few days after Russia invaded.
“That would mean World War III,” said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.).
Russian President Vladimir Putin, when launching the current assault on Ukraine, warned that any who intervene “should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to consequences that you have never faced in your history.”
The U.S. has supplied Ukraine with military equipment and weapons–including Stinger surface-to-air missiles, Javelin antitank missiles and radar to track mortar fire–and has also been sharing battlefield intelligence to help the Ukrainian government defend itself. In doing so, however, U.S. officials said, the Biden administration is being careful to avoid becoming directly embroiled in the conflict itself.
Plans to transfer MiG-29 combat jets from Poland to Ukraine’s air force have also run into concerns that delivering the planes would be seen by Russia as direct intervention.
Should the U.S. and NATO decide to set up a no-fly zone, with all the supporting personnel, aircraft and antimissile batteries, the measures may not be effective in warding off shelling coming from ground artillery, Western defense officials said.
“The no-fly zone would not help. Most of the shelling is coming from artillery. Most of the destruction is coming from artillery. It’s not coming from Russian aircraft,” the U.K.’s chief of defense staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, told the BBC in early March.
When has the U.S. used no-fly zones in past conflicts?
Modern no-fly zones first emerged in the 1990s, when the U.S. established such zones over Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina to protect civilian populations. In Iraq, the U.S. set up two no-fly zones, in the north to protect Kurdish populations and to protect Shiites in the south.
Maintaining those no-fly zones was costly, both in manpower and spending. The U.S.-led alliance flew at least 300,000 sorties to maintain the no-fly zone over the vast area, according to a 2002 report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy report. The operation cost roughly $1 billion a year between 1996 and 2001, according to a 2011 report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank on defense policy.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, NATO established a two-year no-fly zone, largely to prevent air attacks by Bosnian-Serb forces and protect United Nations peacekeepers in fighting during the breakup of Yugoslavia. U.S. fighters shot down four Serb jets while enforcing the no-fly zone in 1994.
In 2011, NATO also established a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from regime airstrikes. Shortly after creating the no-fly zone, NATO members conducted offensive strikes against the Gadhafi regime, drawing the ire of some nations, including Russia. In his announcement of what he called the “special military operation” on Ukraine, Mr. Putin cited “the illegal use of military power against Libya” as an abuse of Western power in the post-Cold War era.
Are there more limited options for no-fly zones in Ukraine?
Rather than impose a no-fly zone over all of Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe, an option would be to establish a more limited area of restricted airspace. A group of some two-dozen security specialists, former diplomats and national security officials serving Democratic and Republican administrations issued an open letter calling for a limited no-fly zone.
The letter suggests starting with protecting safe passage for people to leave cities under attack—something their proposal notes that Ukrainian and Russian negotiators have agreed to in talks, though haven’t carried out.
“More must be done to prevent more wide scale casualties and a potential bloodbath,” said the letter. “A U.S.- NATO enforced No-Fly Zone to protect humanitarian corridors and additional military means for Ukrainian self-defense are desperately needed, and needed now.”
Ms. Psaki, the White House press secretary, said the limited option presents much the same risk as a broader no-fly zone above Ukraine. It “would still require implementation of a no-fly zone, even if it’s a smaller geography, which would still require shooting down Russian planes if they fly into your no-fly zone,” Ms. Psaki told reporters. That, she said, could be “an escalatory action that could lead us into a war with Russia.”