Why a no-fly zone risks escalating the Ukraine conflict

The US rejection of Poland’s offer to send fighter jets as a boost to Ukraine’s air defence shows just how uneasy nations are about direct combat with Russia.

Expert comment Updated 14 March 2022 Published 13 March 2022 3 minute READ

Major Jayne McCroary

Former Visiting Army Fellow, International Security Programme

The Pentagon’s decision to turn down the proposal by its fellow NATO member Poland to put Russian-made MiG-29 jets at its disposal demonstrates again how keen the US and allies are to avoid risking major confrontation with Russian forces.

The US Department of Defense says the offer to locate jets at bases in Germany was ‘not tenable’ as this risks flying into contested airspace over Ukraine – a non-NATO member – raising ‘serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance’ and echoing the continuing rejection of calls to implement no-fly zones (NFZs) as a way of easing the devastation being faced by trapped Ukraine civilians.

NFZs restrict any aircraft, including drones, from flying over a pre-defined region and can be used for both military and civilian purposes. But the implementation of NFZs is difficult to enforce and – most significantly – is unlikely to achieve the intended effect on the ground.

In the long-term, under the terms of a ceasefire agreement, it may be possible to include a NFZ under a UN or joint OSCE-UN peace terms

In conflict situations, they are usually implemented under the remit of United Nations (UN) peace support operations, requiring authorization under Article 42 of the UN Charter. This details that if all possible methods have proven ineffective in responding to a threat, countries ‘may take such action by air, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security’.

Protection but with limitations

NFZs provide both protection from attack and surveillance but do have limitations. They must be monitored and enforced which requires committing to fighter jet patrols with the explicit task of defending the area from the air by whatever means necessary.

This could mean jets firing upon Russian planes and drones so, if NATO allies and partners were to enforce a NFZ, it would represent an escalation of measures which is a step that would most likely provoke an unpredictable Vladimir Putin into further escalation – in short, it is highly likely to be seen as an act of war.

UK defence secretary Ben Wallace – among others – has repeatedly dispelled the idea, saying that enforcing NFZs would mean deploying ‘British fighter jets directly against Russian fighter jets’. In relation to moves such as the Polish jets, the Kremlin has warned that any countries offering airfields to Ukraine for attacks on Russia may be viewed as having entered the conflict.

There have only been three past instances of military NFZs. In Bosnia, as part of Operation Deny Flight from 1993-1995, a NFZ was enforced as part of a strategy which also including the provision of close air support and approved air strikes.

In Iraq, an NFZ endured for 12 years from 1991 and was succcesful in preventing Saddam Hussein from attacking Kurdish and Shia Muslim civilians. And in Libya in 2011, a NFZ was deployed to prevent the destruction of military infrastructure and the Libyan regime – although this quickly morphed into the provision of close air support.

So it is unclear just how successful NFZs are at providing protection. In Iraq and Libya, NFZ cover protection was provided but neither Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gaddafi were able to effectively target victims through their ground forces whereas, in Bosnia, Slobodan Milosevic infamously used ground troops to slaughter 8,000 Bosnian men and boys at Srebrenica.

Putin would still be able to continue to use both ground forces and artillery to assault Ukrainian cities with or without a NFZ – in fact, his sparse use of his Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) has been one of the surprising features of the war so far. Under a NFZ, missile attacks could also continue, there is nothing in the record of no-fly zones to suggest the provision of safe areas for non-combatants would work.

And NFZs have only been successful against vastly inferior forces such as in Iraq, Bosnia, and Libya. But Russia has an air force second only in size to the US and has a vast range of defences including the potent S-400 Triumf at its disposal. Not only would an NFZ be ineffective, it might also not be possible to enforce without risking significant losses to the peace operations force.

It is due to a combination of these reasons that NFZs have not been used more in previous conflicts. The most recent consideration for a NFZ was in Syria but President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian forces, protected by Russian air cover, could still have targeted their intended victims despite air policing so a NFZ was not used.

If NATO allies and partners were to enforce a NFZ, it would represent an escalation of measures which is a step that would most likely provoke an unpredictable Vladimir Putin into further escalation

In the long-term, under the terms of a ceasefire agreement, it may be possible to include a NFZ under a UN or joint OSCE-UN peace terms. However, the forces involved should exclude NATO allies and partners or any states with Russian alliances to avoid further conflict.

This leaves few suitable countries with the capacity, willingness, and political stance to be called on. Two of the world’s most militarily capable states – China and India – abstained in the Uniting for Peace vote in the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Whether another willing state with the military capability – such as a Gulf state – could be considered acceptable to all sides remains to be tested.

Notable successes with SAMs

Many military commentators also note that currently Ukrainian forces are having notable success without jets, downing Russian aircraft using sophisticated surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) such as Stinger and Javelin, and NATO countries continue to supply those in their thousands.

Why a no-fly zone risks escalating the Ukraine conflict 2nd part

The US is also sending more Patriot anti-missile batteries in preference to the Polish MiG jets, and the UK has announced it will send STARStreak – the fastest SAMs in the world – to Ukraine. This system falls inside the definition of a ‘defensive’ weapon but does represent a step change in military capability.

It accelerates to more than Mach 4, cannot be suppressed or jammed, and was designed to provide close air defence against conventional threats such as fighter jets and late unmasking helicopter targets. The system was designed to be deployed quickly into operations and is easy to integrate – essentially creating a NFZ.

Time will tell if this could this be a step too far either for NATO or for Putin. It could be that the sending of jets is largely symbolic and seen as provocative, but the main hope for traumatised Ukrainian civilians is currently running the gauntlet of humanitarian ‘corridors’ to escape the bombardments in temporary and fragile ceasefires.

This article was originally published in The Independent.