What Is a No-Fly Zone? And How Would It Change the War in Ukraine?
No-fly zones have been used sparingly in history—in Iraq, Bosnia, and Libya—and Ukraine is asking for one now.
As Russia’s attacks on Ukraine escalate and the number of Ukrainian refugees and casualties increase, President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked for a no-fly zone to eliminate Russia’s superior air power from air strikes and bombing raids.
“The no-fly zone could save peaceful neighborhoods, shelters, and important facilities [such as nuclear and hydroelectric power plants] and protect civilians from the unpredictable and horrific consequences of Russian aggression,” says Mykola Volkivskyi, former advisor to the chairman of the Committee of the Ukrainian Parliament.
People worldwide want to know how to help Ukraine, and in addition to offering aid, gaining recognition of the increasing brutality in the country is also essential. To understand why President Zelensky wants to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine and to help end the Ukraine-Russia war, we must comprehend both the intricacies of a no-fly zone in Ukraine and the far-reaching implications of such a measure.
What is a no-fly zone?
“A no-fly zone is a military measure, usually imposed by outside forces on a conflict zone in which there is, or soon may be, a civil war or international war,” says John Davenport, PhD, professor of philosophy, peace, and justice studies at Fordham University. No-fly zones have been used to prevent military aircraft from engaging in aerial attacks during times of conflict.
David Edgarton, a retired commander who served in the U.S. Navy for 21 years and was deployed numerous times to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, including for Operation Southern Watch, a no-fly zone over Iraq in 1997. “The Ukrainian Air Force has been effective in defending its airspace,” he says, “but doesn’t have the raw numbers of aircraft to continue to defend its airspace.”
But a no-fly zone comes with greater implications.
“Imposing a no-fly zone against another country or within a conflict zone is to declare war against that nation,” says Nicholas Creel, PhD, political scientist and professor of business law at Georgia College and State University. “At its most basic level, a no-fly zone is a declaration that enemy planes will be shot down when they enter a specified area.”
What happens if a plane flies into a no-fly zone?
“If a plane flies into a no-fly zone,” Edgarton says, “the opposing military force’s aircraft would be engaged through a series of escalating actions, most likely starting with radio communications broadcasted over a common frequency and then escalating to air escort and possible weapons engagement.”
No-fly zones must be enforced and not just declared. In this case, they’d require deploying NATO fighter jets to patrol Ukrainian airspace and actively shoot down Russian planes that violate the restricted zone, placing NATO forces—America, the United Kingdom, France, and 27 other countries—in a direct military confrontation with Russia.
“Assuming aerial domination is achieved—a big ‘if,’ in this case—next comes the phase of maintaining the no-fly zone,” says Daniel Brunstetter, PhD, professor of political science at the University of California–Irvine. “If a Russian plane or drone flew into the area, NATO would have to decide whether or not to engage and destroy it. There is, in other words, a continued risk of violence, including the risk of NATO pilots being shot down.”
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Where have no-fly zones been imposed?
“No-fly zone” isn’t a new military term. There’s a history of such measures going back to the ’90s.
No-fly zones were imposed in Iraq from 1991 to 2003, following the Gulf War, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1993 to 1995, during the Bosnian War. They’ve been enacted twice in Libya: during the First Libyan Civil War in 2011 and again in 2018–2019 for ten days during the conflict over control of the country’s oil fields.
Why has Ukraine asked for a no-fly zone?
Russians are destroying residential areas, bomb shelters, and maternity hospitals, leaving many dead and, in some cases, burying people alive. Missiles are hitting high-rise buildings and shopping malls, sometimes right in front of the queues of people waiting for humanitarian aid. Russian troops on the border prohibit evacuations, and everyday Ukrainians are learning tactical skills—such as making a tourniquet using bedsheets or shirt sleeves—as the civilian population prepares to deal with increasing combat casualties.
Establishing a no-fly zone would offer the Ukrainian people hope for an end to the conflict. “A no-fly zone would mark a bigger commitment than selling arms and sanctions, which could potentially help level the playing field and turn the tide of the conflict in Ukraine’s favor,” says Brunstetter.
Where would a no-fly zone be imposed?
“Not all no-fly zones are created equally,” says Matthew Shoemaker, a former intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency who served on the Russia and China desks. And not everyone is proposing a no-fly zone of the same scope.
“Some have proposed the entirety of Ukraine’s airspace be declared a no-fly zone to prevent Russian aircraft from entering Ukraine, while others have argued the western portion of Ukraine [should] have a no-fly zone established to create a safe passageway for refugees escaping the Russian onslaught,” he says. “In either case, the goal is to prevent the Russian air force from attacking targets within Ukraine.”
How would a no-fly zone change the Ukraine-Russia war?
“Russia is a nuclear power,” says retired major John Spencer, chair of urban warfare studies with the Madison Policy Forum and author of the forthcoming book Connected Soldiers. “And there is no precedent for imposing a no-fly zone against a nuclear power.”
Nobody wants a nuclear event on the scale of—or greater than—Chernobyl. “If the U.S. or NATO imposed a no-fly zone over Ukraine or parts of Ukraine, they would have to enforce it, putting American or NATO fighters directly against any Russian aircraft in Ukraine,” he says. “It would also allow Putin to severely escalate the war in Ukraine, basically possibly causing a trigger for World War III.”
Ukrainians see it another way. “The whole Western world has shown fear and unnecessary caution,” says Volkivskyi. “But acts of genocide in many regions of Ukraine can change NATO’s position, as the crimes are extremely serious. I think that if the alliance agrees to provide us with more weapons and establish a no-fly zone, at least in the west of the country, it will significantly accelerate our victory and save thousands of lives.”
Why have the United States and NATO rejected a no-fly zone so far?
“The U.S. and NATO have resisted a no-fly zone, given that enforcing it would require them to directly engage with Russian air units,” says Creel. “And enforcing the no-fly zone would require them to start fighting the Russian Air Force if they continued operating in Ukraine. Any such action would be extremely escalatory, potentially leading to an all-out war between NATO and Russia.”
Edgarton doubts that Putin would honor a NATO-enforced no-fly zone and believes it would almost immediately bring NATO and Russian forces at odds with each other, most likely resulting in direct combat. “Any attack on NATO forces would then be seen as an attack on all NATO forces and would draw Western Europe into a global conflict,” he says. “It would also provide an excuse for Putin to invade other NATO countries, such as the Baltic states or Poland.”
In short, the United States and other NATO countries fear escalation on a global scale. “Committing to shooting down Russian planes is lighting the fuse for World War III,” says Creel. And that’s a result nobody wants.
- Mykola Volkivskyi, former advisor to the chairman of the Committee of the Ukrainian Parliament
- John Davenport, PhD, professor of philosophy and director of peace and justice studies at Fordham University
- David Edgarton, retired U.S. Navy commander who was deployed during the Iraq no-fly zone in 1997
- Nicholas Creel, PhD, political scientist and professor of business law at Georgia College and State University
- Matthew Shoemaker, former intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency who served on both the Russia and China desks
- Daniel Brunstetter, PhD, professor of political science at the University of California–Irvine
- John Spencer, retired major in the U.S. Army, chair of urban warfare studies with the Madison Policy Forum, and author of the forthcoming book Connected Soldiers