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Can a No-Fly Zone for Ukraine Be Scalable?

March 04, 2022
4 min read
Photo credit: Dutchmen Photography / Shutterstock.com
A NATO-enforced no-fly zone that could protect Ukrainian forces and civilians from Russian air attacks has been the main demand of Ukrainian leadership over the past days.

While it is understandable that most Ukrainian stakeholders would like to see a full-fledged, no-fly zone—and not be in the fight against Russia alone—this will be impossible. A NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine could provoke direct confrontation between Russian and NATO forces within hours, with unforeseeable consequences, including the possibility of a nuclear war. No NATO member state is ready to take that risk.

But there is perhaps another option.

Especially if air attacks near Ukraine’s western borders increase, neighboring countries Poland, Slovakia, and Romania could declare the 100-kilometer-wide zone from their borders a humanitarian zone to allow Ukrainian refugees to leave the country without the threat of air attacks from Russia or Belarus.  

This could involve armed combat air patrols in the area, but it would not be a no-fly zone in the strict sense, like the Northern and Southern Watch operations over Iraq or the no-fly zone over Bosnia. Crucially, NATO airplanes would not automatically shoot at Russian airplanes entering the zone. Armed fighter jets have plenty of opportunities to make air-to-ground missions difficult even without the use of weapons—the planes can be intercepted or mocked with approaches and close passes. The repeated unarmed clashes between Greek and Turkish jets over the Aegean can offer us a good demonstration in this regard. Naturally this, too, bears the risk of quick escalation if Russia chooses to challenge the zone. And NATO would have to decide how it will respond if Russia shoots down a member’s aircraft approaching one of their own over Ukraine.

NATO would have to decide how it will respond if Russia shoots down a member’s aircraft approaching one of their own over Ukraine.

Legitimacy and the legal base of a humanitarian zone could be given—as the UN Security Council is incapable of effectively addressing the issue due to the conflict party Russia—by a UN General Assembly Uniting for Peace resolution. The work should start there in any case, rather than by unilaterally declaring a humanitarian no-fly zone. In close coordination with the United States, Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian and Slovak diplomacy should exploit the recently convened 11th Emergency Special Session of the UN General Assembly and push for an appropriate UN mandate for a humanitarian zone. Whether or not a no-fly zone is included, it is important to pursue a Uniting for Peace resolution in the UN General Assembly to condemn the Russian aggression and demand the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.

Covering cities like Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernivtsi, and Lutsk, among others, a 100-kilometer-wide humanitarian zone along the western borders of Ukraine could ensure a safe route for refugees out of the country as well as provide a safe haven for internally displaced persons, so it has a clear humanitarian purpose.

It would also provide a boost to Ukrainian morale and send important signals to Russia’s political and military leadership. In addition, there would be military and strategic benefits for Ukrainian armed forces that are worth consideration without pulling NATO automatically into open armed conflict with Russia. It could provide a secure hinterland and logistic base for the Ukrainian army, keeping the supply route over the Polish-Ukrainian border open and allowing Ukrainian forces to deploy air defense assets that are currently further east in the region.

While some critics raise the point that such a geographically limited no-fly regime could be exploited by Russian propaganda as a de facto recognition of Ukraine’s partition by the West, it would be better than nothing—especially if air attacks escalate.

Obviously, even such a humanitarian no-fly zone involves the risk of significant military escalation. However, as the campaign escalates, pressure on Western leaders to do more for Ukraine will increase. The Polish and Romanian air forces have the necessary assets and capabilities to provide combat air patrols in a humanitarian border zone, particularly if they were supported with aerial refueling by NATO partners. Central European countries, the most involved EU and NATO member states in this conflict, may have to consider bigger steps.          

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