I am a firm supporter of freedom for Ukraine. I believe that Putin is a dictator who threatens not just Russia’s neighbours and its own people but the western world. I think the west must do everything it can wisely do to help Ukraine in its fight to defend itself. However, I believe that NATO is right to rule out the idea of a no-fly zone.
The pros of a no-fly zone are obvious. Ukraine’s air force is fighting hard, but it is small. It is surprising that it still exists, given the overwhelming strength of Russia’s air assets (at least on paper). Clearing the skies over Ukraine of Russian jets and helicopters would protect Ukrainian army ground troops from bombing and air assaults and deny Russia key military intelligence. Seeing allied planes overhead would be a massive morale boost to the Ukrainian populace and military. This is one reason Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly requested a no-fly zone.
Implementing a NATO no-fly zone would also demonstrate that the west is serious about defending democracy and is willing to back up its statements and diplomacy with force. Western leaders would not need to convince their citizens that this is the right course as public support for a no-fly zone is high. In the US alone, 74% of respondents want a no-fly zone to be put in place.
In many peoples’ minds, this would be a defensive and even peaceful approach to helping Ukraine.
It would not.
A NATO no-fly zone would mean that western fighter planes would be engaging and shooting down any Russian aircraft flying over Ukraine. NATO planes might also be shot down, not just by Russian fighters and anti-aircraft defences but by Ukrainian soldiers, if they were mistaken for Russian planes.
It is also unclear how much difference a no-fly zone would make. The Ukrainian air force is still operational. Surprisingly, the Russian air force has for the most part not made an appearance. Only a small part of Russia’s air assets has been deployed. If Russia’s air forces are not making much impact, a NATO no-fly zone will not make much difference either.
In addition, the Ukrainian army has been well supplied with MANPADS (man-portable air defence systems) anti-aircraft missiles, which have enabled them to shoot down a possible 60 Russian planes and helicopters.
There would be risks to NATO aircraft enforcing a no-fly zone. An obvious risk is that a shooting war between NATO and Russia could escalate into a wider scale conventional war, expanding to Poland or the Baltics. It is doubtful that Russia would launch conventional attacks on other countries, since it seems bogged down in Ukraine, but the threat remains.
Western intervention could also lead Putin to launch tactical or strategic nuclear missiles. While the risk of this is small, the consequences would be catastrophic.
Conflicts tend to evolve in unknown ways. Perhaps a no-fly zone would lead to a broader war in Europe that engaged many of NATO’s resources and attention and this would embolden China to move on Taiwan while the west is preoccupied. This is also a low risk (the sanctions imposed on Russia might give China second thoughts about this) but one never knows what path a war may take.
If a NATO no-fly zone is not on the cards, what can the west do? The unprecedented sanctions against Russia have been a huge step. Few would have foreseen western governments and companies acting in concert in this way. The effect on Russia will be huge: financially, diplomatically and militarily.
The west has also been generous with arms. The anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles it has provided have been instrumental in slowing and in some places stopping the Russian attacks, inflicting severe losses on the invader. More and faster resupply will be crucial to helping Ukraine.
NATO has shared important intelligence with Ukraine, enabling its army to move forces to thwart Russian assaults. Without that intel, the Ukrainian military would have been operating blindly.
Western diplomacy has also been effective. While some of Russia’s allies have not abandoned her, their support has been tepid: abstentions instead of supporting votes in the UN resolution condemning the invasion.
There have been proposals to supply planes—MiGs from Poland and other countries—but these proposals have stalled. If the planes can be provided quickly and put to use by Ukraine immediately, this may be a good option. It is an escalation but lies within the current scope of providing Ukraine with weapons.
Ukraine’s and the west’s end game is the removal of Russian forces from Ukraine. The probability of that happening while Putin remains in power is extremely low. Perhaps a critical way the west can help Ukraine is encourage those around Putin to remove him from power by quietly letting them know that they do not have to go down with the ship. The chances of a coup happening increase every day the Russian army stays bogged down in Ukraine, sanctions bite harder, and unrest increases in Russia. Continuing to provide arms, intelligence and diplomatic support can move us in that direction.
My heart tells me that we should do anything and everything to help Ukraine—but we need to act wisely. Implementing a no-fly zone is not the most rational path.