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Warplanes deployed for NATO enhanced air policing operations to counter the Russia treat against Ukraine. Alamy Stock Photo

Explainer: Why a no-fly zone over Ukraine won't happen, despite Zelenskyy's plea

Ukrainian officials have continued to call for direct air-support from the international community.

IN AN EMOTIONAL speech at the weekend, Ukrainian president Vlodymyr Zelenskyy criticised NATO for refusing to impose a no-fly zone over his country, which continues to come under attack from Russian forces.

“All the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you, because of your weakness, because of your lack of unity,” he said.

“The alliance has given the green light to the bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages by refusing to create a no-fly zone.”

Although there have been discussions about some countries providing aircraft to Ukrainian forces, the prospect of any international coalition imposing a no-fly zone has been continuously ruled out.

Speaking to The Journal, security and defence analyst Declan Power said the consequences of implementing a no-fly zone could be explosive and would be in conflict with the traditional aim of this kind of action, which is to de-escalate a situation. 

What is a no-fly zone?

Any region of airspace in which the passage of certain aircraft has been restricted can be classed as a no-fly zone. They can be put in place for security reasons over particular locations or buildings or temporarily for a large event. 

In this circumstance, the purpose would be to prevent Russian military aircraft from entering the airspace over Ukraine, whether it was for surveillance or to launch an attack from the air.

Classifying that space as a no-fly zone is more complicated than simply giving it that designation, Power explained. It would require involvement by international forces – in this case NATO – and considerable resources.

“With a no-fly zone it doesn’t have to be NATO, but it is usually NATO-related nations. They would have command and control systems, personnel, there may be airbases already in situ,” he said.

“This is not just about putting jets in the air, there has to be a kind of ringmaster, people who have the appropriate communications and electronic support systems, such as military radar. That exists on the ground, well out of the battlefield.”

Then you have other assets, known as electronic coordination centres. They are aircraft that fly well above what’s happening on the ground. If you’ve ever seen old war films with an RAF centre with a big map on the table, it’s the same concept, but transported onto an aircraft with a load of people sitting around various consoles and they coordinate the fighter jets.

“With the command and control on the ground and an extension of it in the air you can then start to decide on flight squadrons, the numbers needed and where to have them,” he explained.

“The fighter jets are properly armed and coordinated, they have their own systems but they’re connected back to bigger systems so the entire enforcement zone is covered.”

Power said these fighter pilots would be given strict rules of engagement, that could include orders to engage with and potentially shoot down aircraft that are considered to be in breach of the no-fly zone.

Why won’t NATO impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine?

He said an air conflict between NATO and the Russian air force would be “a serious digging match”, as Russia has an experienced air force with strong technology, though it is not as advanced as the NATO side. 

“If the Russians weren’t able to handle it there’s potential for escalation. Neither of them have been directly against each other in combat – for good reason.”

No-fly zones have been used a number of times in the past – not just by NATO – including in recent years in Syria to protect civilians from airstrikes by the Russian-based Syrian regime. 

In this situation, Power said, the threat to the wider international coalition was low and the aim was to protect civilians from hugely destructive strikes from the air and prevent an escalation in the conflict. 

“It allows the weaker opponents to hold the line, taking the worse of the carnage out of the situation and allowing the smaller opponent breathing space,” he explained.

And in those types of situations you wouldn’t have the Russians deploying their airforce, their attitude would be if the Syrians can’t handle it they can’t handle it. But in Ukraine, NATO forces would be directly against Russia, and if they went head-to-head there’s potential for serious escalation.

“The no-fly zone concept is designed as an instrument to limit escalation, the idea is to limit devastation against the civilian population – in this case it would be an instrument of escalation which defeats the purpose.”

This escalation could lead to a wider international conflict, and potentially the use of nuclear weapons, he said. 

“Some have argued that if you deployed air assets to Ukraine you’d give the Russians an immediate bloody nose and they’d be stunned. But you could have such a level of panic and dissonant thinking at the senior level that it pushes the situation into a nuclear war very quickly.”

Would a no-fly zone make a big difference to Ukraine’s defence?

Power said that imposing a no-fly zone may not be what Ukraine ultimately needs for its battle against Russian forces. 

In the early part of the invasion, mane of the Ukrainian army’s airforce assets were destroyed, as Russian forces had identified and taken them out. 

“Even at the best of times, their air force was out of date, so in jet-to-jet combat they would have struggled,” he said. 

One alternative to a no-fly zone is a donation from other countries, such as Poland and Romania, of fighter jets that Ukrainian pilots could fly. 

“Would that be acceptable to the Russians?” Power said.

Would they see that as direct interference? And would the Ukrainians have the expertise if they did get those aircraft? I dare say they’d make a fair go of it but in a one-on-one battle the Russians would have the upper-hand in the longterm. 

He said the ground fighting is where Ukraine has a chance and Russian forces will never be able to entirely cut the country off from borders that facilitate donations of Western weaponry.

“The Russians are proving slow on the ground, even if they take it all they won’t be able to occupy it, what we’ll have is an insurgency war,” he said.

“So we could see Ukraine go the way Syria did; fragmented. It’s natural for the Ukrainians to make noise and push for as much as they can get, but what they are planning for in the longer term is that move to an insurgency war.”

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