Ukraine has long wanted a no-fly zone on the country enforced by the Western military alliance NATO. This would give the Ukrainian armed forces a better chance against Russian aggression. What exactly is a no-fly zone, why is NATO not prepared for it, and what could happen?

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has been calling for a no-fly zone on his country enforced by NATO for some time, but the coalition does not respond to the president’s anger. He said yesterday that coalition leaders have given the go-ahead to more bombings of towns and villages in Ukraine after they refused to declare a no-flying zone.

Zelenski is angry that there will be no no-fly zone:

What is a no fly zone?

A no-fly zone is a certain part of the airspace where it has been agreed that certain aircraft are not allowed to fly (anymore). It is not only used in war zone. It is also prohibited for us to fly over certain areas, temporarily or otherwise.

For example, it is strictly forbidden to fly within a radius of 5 km around the Warande Park in our capital Brussels. In addition to the royal palace, the federal and Flemish Parliaments are located within that radius. There are also extensive no-fly zones in our country for drones to prevent them from disrupting normal air traffic.

In a military context, a no-fly zone is primarily intended to stop military aircraft from carrying out air strikes or surveillance missions. Such a no-fly zone must of course also be enforced militarily by attacking or even shooting down aircraft that do not adhere to that no-fly zone with anti-aircraft defenses or combat aircraft.

A no-fly zone over Ukraine enforced by NATO could therefore lead to NATO forces firing and possibly shooting down Russian planes. On the other hand, it would give the Ukrainian armed forces a fairer chance against the Russians. Although you cannot, for example, stop missile attacks with such a no-fly zone.

Has NATO done that before?

Yes, NATO has declared and enforced no-fly zones in the past. This was the case, for example, in Libya in 2011 to protect the population that had risen against dictator Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi from air strikes. That happened there with the green light from the UN Security Council. In other words, NATO had a mandate to do that effectively.

NATO also enforced no-fly zones in the early 1990s during the Balkan Wars. That too happened on the basis of a UN resolution. This NATO operation is not to be confused with the later NATO bombing of Serbia in the late 1990s, which did not take place with the approval of the UN Security Council. Something Putin is only too happy to remind NATO of.

Damage after NATO bombing near Belgrade:

Why does NATO not want to enforce a no-fly zone?

If NATO forces fire at a Russian plane, the risk of escalation is very high. As mentioned, proclaiming a no-fly zone is pointless if you don’t intend to enforce it. And that can only be done by effectively ensuring that there is no longer flying over Ukraine. You do that in turn by scaring off those aircraft, shooting them and possibly even taking them down.

If NATO fires on a Russian aircraft, Russia may see it as an act of war. Russian President Vladimir Putin said it in so many words yesterday. “Any country that enforces a no-fly zone over Ukraine will be considered a participant in the armed conflict,” he said. In other words, NATO would be at war with the Russian Federation.

“From the first second, they will be seen as participants in the conflict,” Putin said at a meeting with Russian flight crews yesterday:

By the way, NATO has the best cards to win that war against Russia purely with conventional means, but that is not counted on the Russian nuclear arsenal. Several NATO member states also have nuclear weapons. The whole raison d’être for those large nuclear arsenals is just deterrence.

Putin recently underlined this by announcing that he has put Russia’s nuclear arsenal on edge. As a nuclear power you do not start a war against another nuclear power, because that is a guarantee that all sides lose. This is sometimes referred to as “mutually guaranteed destruction”.

The risk of escalating to World War III or even a nuclear conflict is so great that NATO does not want to run that risk by enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. “We understand the desperation, but if we did, we risk a full-scale war in Europe,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said.

Stoltenberg and US Secretary of State Blinken state very clearly that there will be no no-fly zone:

There is also no United Nations mandate for a no-fly zone over Ukraine (or any other form of intervention). The UN Security Council cannot agree on a resolution to even condemn the Russian invasion. The Russians, like the other permanent members of the Security Council, have a veto, which means that the UN cannot intervene.

Ukraine is also not (yet) a member of NATO or the EU, so no action can be taken on that basis either. NATO is a military alliance in which it is agreed that an attack against one member is an attack against the entire alliance. This also applies to a lesser extent to the European Union. For example, the Treaty of Lisbon, signed by all EU members, provides for a solidarity clause. Although it is mainly intended for terror and not for war threats.

So what’s the alternative?

The alternative to a no-fly zone is to continue to focus on sanctions that affect the Russian economy and thus make it more difficult to finance the war. Those sanctions should also increase the pressure of the Russian people on its leaders, although it is very doubtful whether that will actually turn out that way. For the same money, the Russian people are just more behind the Kremlin’s decisions. Especially now that independent information has become scarce.

Furthermore, there are several countries that supply military equipment to Ukraine. This ranges from camouflage clothing and helmets to anti-tank weapons and machine guns to bullets and petrol. For example, our country alone supplies a combination of these – in modest quantities.

Some countries want to go a step further. For example, Poland, also a NATO member, is considering supplying warplanes to the Ukrainian air force. Specifically, it would be Soviet-era aircraft such as MiG-29s or Mi-17 helicopters that Ukrainian pilots are familiar with. Poland and other Eastern European countries have such aircraft and want to replace them with new aircraft. In any case, this takes time and NATO countries cannot simply give away their planes in times of crisis. Ukrainian President Zelensky yesterday asked members of the US Congress to deliver planes. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader of the Senate, seemed convinced and wants to see if that is an option with his party colleague and President Joe Biden.

VRT journalist Bert De Vroey analyzed the no-fly zone and the possible alternatives on Friday in “Terzake”:

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