As Russian attacks battered the city of Kharkiv on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces firing on “peaceful residential neighborhoods” and “killing peaceful Ukrainian people” was a war crime, and reiterated his plea with NATO and the West to establish a no-fly zone for Russian aircraft over Ukrainian airspace.
“I believe that the complete closure of the sky for Russian missiles, planes, and helicopters should be considered,” Zelenskyy said in a presidential address Monday. Both the Biden administration and NATO officials quickly dismissed the idea.
“That is definitely escalating and would potentially put us in a place in a military conflict with Russia,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in an appearance on MSNBC Monday. Asked whether the U.S. was considering a no-fly zone Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said simply: “No.”
But calls to establish a no-fly zone have emerged outside of Ukraine as well, including here in the United States. Retired Gen. George Joulwan, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, has suggested establishing one, as have GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi. “Clearly, in the absence of a U.N. resolution, which Russia would veto, a strong coalition of like-minded nations should step in and seriously consider this,” Wicker told HuffPost Monday.
In practice, establishing a no-fly zone could draw the U.S. and NATO into a shooting war with the country that has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the more hawkish Senate Republicans, told HuffPost flatly Monday: “That would mean shooting down Russian airplanes. That would mean World War III.”
“I think if you take Putin at his word, the consequences could be significantly dire,” Steven Keil, a security fellow at the German Marshall Fund think tank, told VICE News. “It would be essentially perceived as a direct intervention in the conflict by NATO, and likely to receive that kind of response by Russia.”
So what is a no-fly zone, and how could it both provide Ukraine with support to wage the war and escalate the conflict into a potentially world-ending one?
What is a no-fly zone?
A no-fly zone is, essentially, a “standing order to shoot down aircraft,” Derek Davison, a writer for the left-leaning Foreign Exchanges newsletter and co-host of the American Prestige podcast, told VICE News.
No-fly zones were first established by the U.S. and its allies in Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War, ostensibly on humanitarian grounds to protect the nation’s Kurdish and Shia populations. NATO also used a no-fly zone in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, but its most notorious deployment came during the Libyan Civil War in 2011.
Then, the United Nations Security Council authorized a NATO-run no-fly zone in Libya at the request of Libyan rebels fighting the Gadhafi government, as well as the Arab League.
"The rationale [was] that the regular Libyan military had full air supremacy and was using it to great effect against the rebels, and there were concerns about potential civilian casualties and airstrikes," Davison said. “So the logic was to impose this no-fly-zone and even things up a little bit on the ground.”
NATO’s no-fly zone in Libya eventually turned into an air-support campaign that lasted about seven months until the end of October 2011, by which point Gadhafi had been captured and killed. The bombing campaign helped the rebels defeat Gadhafi, but also killed 72 civillians in the process, Human Rights Watch said in 2012. More than a decade later, Libya remains in a state of almost perpetual crisis.
“Of course, [the no-fly zone] spun into a much bigger thing right away, which is part of the reason why you don’t want to go down this road here,” Davison added.
What would a no-fly zone mean in Ukraine?
From Zelenskyy’s perspective, the risk might be worth the potential reward of ending Russian missile attacks and airstrikes, which have battered civilian targets in Kharkiv and Kyiv in recent days.
“Zelenskyy’s in a mindset that it can't get any worse than this,” Davison said. “If it worked and didn’t lead us into a shooting war between NATO and Russia… it would even things up a bit.”
Unlike Iraq and Libya, however, Russia is a world power with more than 5,000 active or available nuclear warheads, according to the Arms Control Association. That’s the most in the world, and while Russia could theoretically back down in a scenario where NATO established a no-fly zone, Putin has referenced his country’s nuclear arsenal at least twice since the invasion began.
As Russia prepared to invade on Feb. 23, for instance, Putin warned that if Ukraine’s Western allies intervene, the consequences “will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”
“I think you have a lot of people who believe maybe they’re like Harry Potter fans or something, and if you say the words ‘no-fly zone’ it's like a magic spell that wards off airplanes from a particular place. That’s not how it works,” Davison said.
Though a conflict wouldn’t necessarily “escalate right away,” Keil said, “the point of a no fly zone is that you would have to enforce it, which means that NATO would have to shoot down any aircraft that would enter that space.”
Davison points to what happened in Libya as an example of what this means in practice. “The [NATO] no-fly zone, without any debate, led immediately to strikes on Libyan ground forces and then full-blown regime change,” he said. “It was seamless, it just bled into a much bigger war.”
It’s also debatable whether a no-fly zone would actually work in Ukraine. Kelly Grieco, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, tweeted Monday that not only would establishing a no-fly zone be a “recipe for escalation,” it would also be “unlikely to be effective.”
This is due, Grieco said, to logistics involved in even setting up the no-fly zone to begin with and Russia’s own military capabilities.
“Would [a no-fly zone] be effective? Would it change the balance of power on the ground? It is doubtful,” Grieco tweeted. “Russia relies heavily on artillery and ground-based fires, not air-delivered fires.”
What happens now?
For now, at least, it appears a no-fly zone is off the table.
“We have no intentions of moving into Ukraine, neither on the ground or in the airspace,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told NBC News on Monday. “We have a responsibility to make sure that this doesn’t spiral out of control and escalate even further into full-fledged war in Europe involving NATO allies.”
The invasion of Ukraine started less than a week ago, but Keil pointed to the Biden administration’s statements as an indication they’re not willing to risk a direct confrontation with Russia even as it drags out.
“I think that that is the point of trying to create clarity on what the U.S. and NATO are willing to do in this conflict, which seems like military aid, and what they’re not willing to do, which is military intervention,” Keil said, describing the latter as a red line for the Biden administration.
“I don’t necessarily see that evolving because of what the consequences of that change would mean.”
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