Pros and cons

The arguments for and against a no-fly zone

Experts fear enforcing restrictions on airspace could escalate conflict with Russia

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged Nato to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, saying he needs “to protect our sky” from the Russian assault on his country. 

But Boris Johnson, Joe Biden and other world leaders have said repeatedly that they will not do so, instead offering resources to bulk up the country’s defences and offer refuge to Ukrainians fleeing the country. 

If this position were to change, then certain aircraft would be banned from a designated airspace over Ukraine. The measure “has to be enforced by military means”, said the BBC, meaning any aircraft that enters the restricted zone could be brought down.


Pro: Stops aerial warfare

Officials had forecast at the start of the invasion that “Russia would enjoy the kind of air supremacy that allowed it to conduct large-scale airstrikes in the Syrian war”, said the Financial Times. But Vladimir Putin’s forces have so far “failed to establish air superiority” and are “suffering huge aircraft losses as a result”, according to the Atlantic Council’s assessment of Russia’s military operation.

A no-fly zone would impose a direct threat to Putin’s remaining stock of aircraft and troops should he continue to order aerial offences over Ukraine. Moscow’s losses so far stand at 14,000 troops and 194 helicopters and planes, according to disputed figures released by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence.

Russia’s air force is currently conducting “approximately two hundred sorties per day”, though many of these are outside Ukrainian airspace, the Atlantic Council said. Ukraine’s air force is much weaker than Putin’s and is currently “flying just five-to-ten sorties per day”.


Con: High cost

No-fly zones require “one or more parties to be willing to enforce them – that is, being ready and able to shoot down any aircraft violating the space”, said The Guardian. The measure can therefore be “costly” as it relies on “constant air patrolling and monitoring”. 

The US has established no-fly zones in the past “but unlike previous instances in Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Libya, which involved containing small and out-dated air forces, Russia has one of the largest air forces in the world – far larger than any in Europe”, said Time

Establishing a zone over Ukraine would mean “top of the line American fighter jets… would need to be sent into the warzone all day and night, along with refuelling planes”. This means that costs could quickly mount up.


Pro: Protecting civilians

President Zelenskyy has been praised for his passionate speeches and commitment to remain in Ukraine with his citizens during the conflict. As of 15 March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights put the total death toll of Ukrainian civilians at 726.

Zelenskyy believes a no-fly zone would reduce the harm to civilians as the conflict continues. Addressing his country this week, he asked: “What else do the occupiers have to do, how many more people do they have to kill in order for Western leaders, Nato leaders to respond positively to Ukraine’s request for a no-fly zone or for providing our country with the aircraft we so desperately need?”

He also promised that the country “will not forget anyone whose lives were taken by the occupiers”.


Con: Risk of escalation

Putin has warned that “any move” towards imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be taken as a sign that the responsible party is a participant in the conflict. Imposing a no-fly zone would therefore “mark a significant escalation in the war” that could bring Nato “directly into a conventional conflict with a nuclear power”, said Axios

And indications that he may be prepared to resort to Russia's nuclear arsenal are further cause for hesitation. “Even the faintest hint of a world war which could become a nuclear war means, in spite of terrible scenes of civilians under attack, the likelihood of any no-fly zone in Ukraine is slim to none,” said the BBC. 

“Nato countries have decided that the risk of fighting against a nuclear-armed adversary is too great,” said Time.


Pro: United front

In 1992, the UN banned unauthorised military flights from Bosnian airspace during the Balkans war, a no-fly zone that was patrolled by Nato forces. 

In April 1994, the Nato alliance “crossed a major political boundary” when two American fighter planes attacked Serbian air forces near the “besieged town of Gorazde”, said The New York Times. It was the first time Nato “demonstrated its determination to protect United Nations personnel under fire”. 

If the alliance were to enforce similar measures over Ukrainian airspace and use its defences to bolster Ukraine’s, it could demonstrate a defensive solidarity with the country.


Con: Won’t stop war

No fly-zones are costly and risk more countries becoming directly involved in conflict with Russia. Additionally, they have “never stopped a war”, said national security specialists Christopher Michael Faulkner and Andrew Stigler on The Conversation.

While Nato’s enforcement of a zone in Bosnia “may have reduced the Serbs’ opportunities to attack Bosnian Muslims and others”, the pair continued: “It is extremely hard to determine the number of civilian lives saved by past airspace bans. 

“What is certain, however, is that Russia… is a vastly different target than that of any prior airspace ban in the past 30 years.”


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