NATO’s Tough Decision: The Case of a No-Fly Zone In Ukraine

By Mina Schmidt and Julia Collado Serrano

Reuters

In the latest edition of Rostra Debate, our editors discussed the implications of a no-fly zone in answer to the question: Should NATO get militarily involved in the Russia-Ukraine conflict / establish a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) in Ukraine?

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24th, Europe has seen the largest mobilisation of forces since 1945. So far, Moscow is struggling to obtain the swift victory it anticipated. As a result, Russian commanders have been intensifying attacks on civilian targets and residential infrastructure, resorting to tactics used in previous wars in Chechnya and Syria: flattening cities with indiscriminate bombing and firepower.

The war has unleashed a devastating humanitarian toll and claimed thousands of lives up until now. It has also prompted more than two million people to flee Ukraine in less than two weeks. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees referred to this wave as the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

NATO’s decision to establish a (limited) no-fly zone has far-reaching diplomatic consequences (Reuters, 2022)

The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been pleading for NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukrainian territory since the beginning stages of the Russian invasion to prevent furthering the humanitarian crisis and avert civilian losses. “We repeat every day: Close the sky over Ukraine. Close for all Russian missiles, for Russian combat aircraft, for all their terrorists”, Zelenskyy declared on his social media channels as a pledge to NATO. 

A no-fly zone is a predefined aerial territory where aircraft are restricted from flying for security reasons. No-fly zones, regardless of whether established for humanitarian reasons or not, require military enforcement to prevent planes from entering the airspace. NATO has established no-fly zones in the name of humanitarian intervention in a number of previous conflicts, including in Iraq in 1992, Bosnia Herzegovina in 1993, and Libya in 2011. 

Given the indiscriminate killing of civilians and the geographical and cultural proximity of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict to NATO member states, the current situation raises doubts as to why NATO is so hesitant to intervene now. The decision to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine is a complex one and finding the balance between protecting millions of civilian lives and preventing a tilt towards global nuclear warfare is a delicate matter that NATO member states are currently facing. But what specifically are the implications of closing Ukraine’s skies? 

In favour of a no-fly zone

According to many Western specialists, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which finds its roots already in 2014, is in violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition on aggression and constitutes a crime of aggression under international criminal law. Some also claim that a military outbreak in response to Russia’s ongoing attempts to reclaim former Soviet territory is inevitable, so managing the margins through military involvement now is the most viable solution to prevent further civilian losses in the long run. What is more, the brutal acts orchestrated by Putin in Ukraine constitute a growing body of evidence of possible war crimes

As such, those defending the position in favour of a no-fly zone believe that this measure is vital and urgent from a humanitarian perspective. Russia has proven that they both indiscriminately and anti-humanitarian use methods of warfare, as a result hitting residential areas and hospitals. Therefore, NATO must draw the line to protect civilian lives, especially given their prior humanitarian interventions in conflicts, such as in Iraq or Libya. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy sent a clear message on his views about the no-fly zone: “I believe that failing to do so [establishing a no-fly zone] in fear of Putin’s reaction simply empowers Putin even more. Now’s the time to put a stop to him and his barbaric brutality.” In another statement, Zelenskyy drew the comparison between NATO’s current stance and the League of Nations’ appeasement policies in the 1938 Munich agreement that inevitably led to the crushing of the Czechoslovak republic by Nazi Germany, posing the question of whether the world has not at all learned its lessons from the 20th century. 

NATO fighter aircraft (Al Jazeera, 2022)

Against a no-fly zone

Considering Russia’s immense nuclear arsenal, by enforcing a no-fly zone NATO risks a rapid escalation of the conflict and the possibility of a nuclear war. The reality is that any enforcement of a no-fly zone would be the start of a larger, bloodier war, thereby, putting millions of civilian lives on the line. The White House spokesperson Jen Psaki stated: “A no-fly zone requires implementation. It would require essentially the US military shooting down Russian planes and prompting a potential direct war with Russia – the exact step that we want to avoid.” In response to Zelenskyy’s call to action, Putin has already warned a no-fly zone would be seen as “participation in the armed conflict”. He also likened the hard-hitting sanctions imposed by the West to a declaration of war. 

Limited no-fly zones have been proposed as a way around this problem. By merely operating in certain areas of Ukraine, they in theory limit the risk that NATO would need to fire on Russian aircraft, preventing an even greater escalation whilst simultaneously protecting civilian lives. Another option that has been in discourse is the implementation of a “non-kinetic no-fly zone”, a technology in its very early stages of development that has been advocated for by some members of the US congress, suggesting the use of electromagnetic pulse, sonar, and cyber technology to prevent Russian jets from entering given airspace, although specialists claim this solution is mathematically impossible with the current state of the art technology. However, the logic of limited no-fly zones is fallible since closing certain air spaces will undoubtedly lead to clashes between NATO and Russian fighter jets. Framing no-fly zones then as limited or non-kinetic would hence merely act as a semantic strategy to avoid nuclear consequences as a response from Russia. 

All in all, the war in Ukraine poses an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. Yet, the consequences and enforcement of a no-fly zone remain subject to the danger of Putin’s reaction and a further escalation of the conflict. It seems clear then that there is no concrete moral stance in which it would be better for NATO to impose a no-fly zone without significantly increasing the risk of a nuclear war. The situation remains a precarious one for NATO to make the trade-off between preventing Russia from committing further gruesome war crimes and preventing a potential nuclear war of mutual destruction.