During a recent press conference, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced a plea for the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’. This suggestion was quickly dissected and dismissed, by commentators and the media. There is, however, an argument to be made that in the face of the massive invasion of Ukraine by Russian armed forces, NATO members should and, more importantly, could be creative about how they could establish air cover over the Ukraine without starting World War III.
A no-fly zone was successfully created over Iraq from the spring of 1991 until the American invasion a dozen years later. In Bosnia, from 1993 to 1995, NATO immobilized the formidable Yugoslav air force. This was repeated again in Libya in 2011.
However, several issues arise with no-fly zones – ie applicability, effectiveness and legality.
No-fly zones, similar to “safe zones” on the ground, cannot simply be declared, they must be enforced and protected. This, of course, was not always the case and sometimes led to tragic results, including the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian war. To enforce and protect a possible no-fly zone in Ukraine, NATO pilots would likely have to shoot down Russian planes or engage Moscow’s mobile air defense batteries on the ground, a move that could escalate into an all-out war between Western allies. and the Russian Federation. It’s something everyone wants to avoid.
Historically speaking, no-fly zones have not been particularly effective against helicopters or drones, which should be neutralized before a no-fly zone can be established. Additionally, no-fly zones have no effect on long-range artillery or cruise missile placements. Worse still, they do next to nothing to stop what is happening on the ground. No-fly zonethe would be of no use against a huge russian convoy of trucks and armored vehicles that amassed outside Kiev. For example, commanding the skies over Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War did nothing to prevent Saddam Hussein from launching a ground and helicopter attack on the Shiite population of Iraq. Iraq.
Nor is the legality of applying a no-fly zone a foregone conclusion. In the case of Libya and Bosnia, both were created under United Nations Security Council resolutions. Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, will never accept such a resolution.
There may well be several ways out of the downward spiral in Ukraine, without triggering World War III. Ian Kearns Express his views on a no-fly zone that would prevent Russia from creating what would likely be the worst humanitarian catastrophe in Europe since World War II. Kearns thinks the problem has little to do with NATO pilots having to shoot down Russian planes, but with NATO having to shoot first. He suggests that the West should turn the tables on Moscow and come up with a solution that would force the Russian military to make the choice to fire first.
During the Berlin Airlift in 1948, humanitarian flights flew over the Soviet occupation zone in Germany to airbases and airports in areas of Berlin administered by the Western Allies. The Soviet Union chose not to shoot down US Air Force cargo planes to avoid triggering World War III. A similar operation could be implemented to help people in need in besieged Kyiv.
A second, somewhat more ambitious plan would be to use Polish airbases for the Ukrainian Air Force. By temporarily making these bases Ukrainian territory, but surrounded by NATO, Vladimir Putin would have to make a conscious decision to attack the bases by crossing Polish airspace.
With its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russia has frustrated its efforts to build a reputation as an honest broker within the international community. Putin looks much weaker today than just a week ago. In the weeks and months to come, the Russian economy will continue to collapse due to the global sanctions that have been imposed on the country, while the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian military and the civilian population, as well as the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky, further galvanize the international community. This will make Putin’s domestic position more untenable. What is paramount is how to contain what appears to be a deeply unhinged Putin without provoking him into igniting global conflict.
Will no-fly zones be part of this effort to lock Putin into a long and bloody quagmire in Ukraine? This is a question that remains unanswered.