- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2022

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s impassioned video plea to Thursday’s gathering of NATO leaders in Brussels for emergency military aid effectively dropped what had been Kyiv’s No. 1 ask in the unequal fight to hold off invading Russian forces: a no-fly zone to block Russian fighter jets from the skies over its smaller neighbor.

Mr. Zelenskyy appeared to be bowing to reality in an address to President Biden and other top officials while pressing Western powers for more planes, tanks and missiles “without restrictions.”

“The alliance can still prevent the deaths of Ukrainians from Russian strikes, from Russian occupation, by giving us all the weapons we need,” Mr. Zelenskyy said from Kyiv. His government still controls the capital city a full month after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops across the border.

The Ukrainian leader expressed thanks for Western military aid supplied so far, but he could not hide his frustration that more help was not forthcoming. He said he asked for the no-fly zone on Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded, and that Kyiv has yet to get a definitive answer from the West on requests for tanks, fighter jets and other military assets.

“This is the worst thing about war. We’re not to have a clear answer from the West to requests for help,” he said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg insisted that NATO would not set up a no-fly zone mission in Ukraine because it would ultimately necessitate direct attacks on Russian assets.

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“A no-fly zone means that we need to take out Russian air defense systems in Russia, which are covering their airspace over Ukraine,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “And it means that we have to be ready to shoot down Russian planes. That will most likely lead to a full-fledged conflict.”

Behind the back-and-forth was a deeper, long-running strategic debate about a relatively new wartime tool that has been used only three times — and never in a conflict involving a major world power such as Russia. Although Mr. Zelenskyy appeared to recognize reality in his remarks to NATO leaders, Kyiv for weeks had argued that the U.S. and its NATO partners must establish and enforce a no-fly zone in its skies. He said a no-fly zone was one of the few ways to give the Ukrainian military a fighting chance to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion for good.

The Biden administration and its European allies have steadfastly rejected passionate pleas from Mr. Zelenskyy and others who say the West’s air power could save tens of thousands of lives and preserve the democratically elected government in Kyiv. 

Specialists say a no-fly zone would guarantee that U.S. jets would be forced to shoot down Russian planes or target Russian ground missile batteries that call Washington’s bluff. In Iraq and Bosnia, no-fly zones were contested by the enemy and led to direct confrontations with the U.S. military.

In perhaps the most famous incident, a U.S. F-16 piloted by Air Force Capt. Serbian forces shot down Scott O’Grady while he was patrolling a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Bosnia in 1995. He survived six days behind enemy lines before he was rescued.

The fallout would be even more significant in Ukraine, critics say. Air combat between the U.S. and Russia would be the likely result of a no-fly zone, and such a confrontation could spark World War III and perhaps even lead to a nuclear exchange.

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“As a matter of international law, Ukraine can grant foreign air forces the right to patrol its airspace in collective self-defense. However, if it became necessary for those foreign aircraft to enforce the no-fly zone with lethal force against hostile Russian aircraft breaching it, an international armed conflict would exist between Russia and the foreign nation whose aircraft are involved,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., now the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.

“No-fly zones are complex operations requiring expert command and control, deconfliction, logistics and more, including provision for combat search and rescue for aircrew that might be downed in Russian-controlled territory,” Gen. Dunlap told The Washington Times. “We also need to be concerned about the risk of friendly fire as thousands of man-portable anti-aircraft missiles have been provided to the Ukrainians in recent weeks, and we don’t necessarily know how well trained they are on the use of these weapons in a chaotic combat setting.”

From a purely legal perspective, an international body such as the United Nations could establish a no-fly zone, national security law scholars say. Still, that route isn’t an option in Ukraine, given Russia’s veto power as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

The other avenue would be a formal request from Kyiv. Such a request would seem to satisfy international legal requirements, though other major world powers — Russia and perhaps China — would likely deem the no-fly zone illegal because it would lack formal U.N. approval. Indeed, a detailed analysis of no-fly zones prepared by the British Parliament this month found “some no-fly zones have a disputed legal basis, especially where they are established without U.N. Security Council approval.”

“In these cases, countries imposing the [no-fly zone] have cited humanitarian concerns,” the House of Commons Library research briefing said.

‘It is combat’

An unfolding humanitarian catastrophe was at the heart of Ukraine’s desperate calls for a no-fly zone. Russian forces have hammered cities across the country, especially the port city of Mariupol, causing untold destruction, killing scores of civilians and sparking a massive migration crisis in Eastern Europe.

Russia has turned the Ukrainian side into a source of death for thousands of people,” Mr. Zelenskyy told Congress in an emotional speech last week when he was pressing Washington and other Western capitals to approve a no-fly mission.

“This is a terror that Europe has not seen, has not seen for 80 years, and we are asking for a reply to this terror from the whole world. Is this a lot to ask for — to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people? Is this too much to ask … a no-fly zone?” he said.

There is no precedent for a no-fly zone over a country like Ukraine, given its geopolitical importance as a flashpoint between Russia and the West. Nor has such a prohibition ever been enforced on a nation such as Russia, which has one of the world’s largest militaries and the biggest stockpile of nuclear warheads.

The term itself was coined after the Gulf War when the U.S., Britain and France dominated the skies over northern and southern Iraq and prevented Saddam Hussein’s jets from even taking off. Those zones were intended to stop Saddam from carrying out airstrikes on his people, including the minority Kurdish population in northern Iraq and Shiite Muslims in southern regions of the country.

Iraq did not immediately comply with the new concept of a no-fly zone. Iraqi forces fired anti-aircraft weapons at U.S. jets. In 1992, an American plane shot down an Iraqi jet that crossed into the nation’s southern no-fly zone.

Those incidents are fresh in the minds of Pentagon leaders, who have stressed that a no-fly zone by definition requires the use of force.

“‘No-fly zone’ has a nice air policing sound to it, but I participated in one as a young officer on an aircraft carrier way back in the early ’90s. It is combat. You have to be willing to shoot and to be shot at,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told ABC News this month. “President Biden has made it clear that U.S. troops are not going to be fighting in Ukraine, and there’s a good reason for that because the United States getting involved in combat in Ukraine right now or over the skies of Ukraine right now leads to war with Russia. And there’s very little that you can see that would make sense for this war to be escalated between two nuclear powers.”

Despite the U.S.-Iraqi clashes and the daily risk to Western troops, the no-fly zones over Iraq through the 1990s effectively neutralized one of the Iraqi dictator’s biggest weapons to terrorize his own people.

Fresh off that relative success, NATO launched Operation Deny Flight over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993. That no-fly zone led to regular clashes for years. Multiple U.S. and NATO aircraft were shot down by Serbian anti-aircraft missiles, including the F-16 flown by Capt. O’Grady.

The Security Council established the world’s most recent no-fly zone in 2011 for a protected air corridor over Libya during the country’s civil war. Russia and China abstained from the Security Council vote. The no-fly zone in Libya, the United Nations said, authorized the international body “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country.”

In Ukraine, military analysts say, a no-fly zone would almost surely lead to a broader war and may not even carry the benefits Mr. Zelenskyy and other proponents anticipated.

“The establishment of a no-fly zone over Ukraine would unquestionably be a major escalation in the conflict and would bring NATO and possibly other European forces into direct conflict with Russian forces. It’s also not clear what military advantage might accrue,” retired Air Force Col. Mike Pietrucha and Marine Corps and Air Force officer Mike Benitez wrote in a recent piece for War on the Rocks.

“The majority of Ukrainian civilian casualties seem not to be inflicted by air power but by artillery,” they wrote. “Russian precision strikes seem to be inflicted by ballistic and cruise missiles, which once fired cannot be interdicted by aircraft in a no-fly zone.”

Mr. Zelenskyy warned the NATO leaders that their reluctance to step up more in Kyiv’s defense now could lead to the larger war they say they fear.

“I’m sure you understand now that Russia isn’t going to stop at Ukraine,” he said. “It will not. It will go further against the eastern members of NATO — the Baltic states and Poland, definitely. Will NATO stop worrying how Russia will respond?”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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