An enraged Volodymyr Zelenskyy blasted the ‘weakness’ of NATO last Saturday (5 March 2022) for its unwillingness to impose an air exclusion (‘no-fly’) zone over Ukrainian airspace, and this policy has been urged by a significant number of US and European politicians. A NATO-enforced no-fly zone, it is believed, will temper the ‘brutality’ of the Russian invasion, improve the chances of the Ukrainian military on the ground, and reduce the number of civilian casualties. In principle, this is a good idea, but it has absolutely no basis in reality. Except for the US neocons bent on accelerating their mindless game of brinkmanship with Russia, calls for a no-fly zone are coming in the main from quarters where the practicalities and ramifications of an air exclusion policy with regard to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine are poorly understood.
Zelenskyy is entirely wrong in describing NATO’s refusal to intervene as weakness. Undoubtedly NATO has been cowardly. As it did with Georgia, the NATO alliance led Ukraine to believe it had western support when in fact it did not — leaving Ukraine to defend itself from Moscow’s response to the implied threat of Ukrainian NATO membership. This was a demonstration of immense moral cowardice on the part of NATO, but it was not a sign of weakness. The military establishments of North America and western Europe, unlike the chattering carpetbaggers of the liberal democracies, grasp what an air exclusion zone over Ukraine means.
According to United States Armed Services Judge Timothy McIlmail, ‘air exclusion zones (“no-fly zones”) prohibit the entry of unauthorized aircraft into airspace over specified territory,’ and so ‘no-fly zones have permitted outside powers to intervene in dangerous conflict areas with relatively little risk.’ His assumption, shaped by western intervention in Bosnia and Iraq, is that air exclusion zones ‘allow highly industrialized and technologically superior powers to take advantage of their virtual monopoly over combat aircraft and anti-air defense systems to project power over territory defended mostly by ground forces.’ Michael N. Schmitt, an expert in international humanitarian law, expands on this definition and lays out its implications in practice:
A no-fly zone is a de facto aerial occupation of sovereign airspace in which, absent consent of the entity authorizing the occupation, only aircraft of the enforcement forces may fly. Violators may be forced out of the zone or, in extreme cases, shot down.
Neither of these definitions, however, speak to the present reality in Ukraine. Written during the period of US unipolarity, they assume an air exclusion zone enforced by a vastly superior military superpower over and against belligerent forces with little or no air power and whose operations are generally limited to the ground. This does not describe a conflict situation involving a hostile state with the air-to-air and surface-to-air military capabilities to defend an airspace over which the United States or NATO is attempting to enforce an exclusion. In order to fully understand what the enforcement of a no-fly zone means in this changed reality, we must first know what such an enforcement requires.
The enforcement of an air exclusion zone is not merely a matter of having the upperhand in the airspace subject to the exclusion (‘air superiority’), it requires the military capability to dominate the zone and exclude all unauthorised aircraft — by force if necessary (‘air supremacy’). Such dominance therefore demands the strength and ability to impose this with the destruction of hostile radar, air defences, and air bases — all of which are in sovereign Russian territory. So, in order to enforce an exclusion over Ukrainian airspace in the face of Russian resistance, NATO would be required to strike targets inside Russia. While engaging Russian aircraft within the exclusion zone may be defended (unconvincingly) as ‘peacekeeping,’ hitting any target inside Russia — which is not within the exclusion zone — is, by definition, an act of war.
In consideration of this, then, it must be asked whether or not this is an objective NATO could achieve while maintaining a ‘limited conflict’ with Russia — that is, limited to the context of the war in Ukraine — and averting an escalation of the conflict from conventional means to a tactical nuclear exchange or worse. In a word — no, this is not realistic. Gaining air superiority over the Russian air force in Ukraine, never mind air supremacy, is an extremely tall order. Russian air bases in territorial Russia and in Belarus are well within 200 nautical miles of key Ukrainian targets in the north, east, and south of the country, and enjoy radar and formidable SAM battery protection (all from within Russia). NATO’s nearest air bases (in Poland, Slovakia, and Romania) lack these protections and are all between 200 and 400 nautical miles from expected engagement locations.
NATO forces, if they are to have a chance of enforcing an air exclusion, would be forced to rely on three additional elements; air bases within Ukraine (that is, active intervention and an act of war), air tankers for mid-air refuelling, and dependence on AWAK long-range aerial radar. This class of tactical deployment worked in the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq because the hostile forces in these theatres lacked the technological and military wherewithal to mount a serious challenge, but this is not the case in Ukraine against Russia. NATO air bases inside Ukraine would be eliminated in short order by Russian missile defences, and a combination of agile Russian fighter jet formations and SAMs would render both tanker mid-air refuelling and AWAK cover impractical.
Every war game scenario of this conflict indicates that a successful enforcement of an air exclusion zone over Ukraine requires the deployment of NATO’s full capabilities against Russian forces in the air and on the ground in Ukraine and in Russia and Belarus. Russia’s only response to this is the reciprocal deployment of its full military capabilities against NATO. This is, even in the absence of a nuclear exchange, the technical definition of a global conflict — World War III. Given the proximity of US WMDs in Europe — Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy — and Turkey (a proximity that reduces Russia’s strike response time), the optimal strategic move for Russia would be to launch a pre-emptive tactical nuclear assault on NATO forces.
In the first instance, following the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), this first nuclear strike would be a short-range limited strike against either a NATO fleet in the Atlantic or Mediterranean (that is, at sea) or against NATO ground forces stationed in one of NATO’s weakest members — Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania. The strategy here, in order to avoid MAD, would be to signal to NATO Russia’s readiness to escalate to a full nuclear (ICBM) response. According to the rules of brinkmanship, the further escalation would be for NATO to decide. Indeed, this is ‘a strange game: The only winning move is not to play.’
While the US neoconservative hawks are pushing this game, NATO is still for the moment operating with a level head. NATO is not weak. It has the material and the ability to at least attempt to enforce an air exclusion zone over Ukraine, but its chief military strategists are well aware of the most likely trajectory such a move would take. If sober heads continue to prevail, withstanding the pressure from the media and public opinion — driven by neocon advice, the NATO alliance will not take this measure. The air will remain open for Russian forces.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Sophy Antrobus, No-fly zones would escalate the Ukraine war – but they shouldn’t be off the table, 5. March 2022, The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/mar/05/no-fly-zones-ukraine-war-escalation
Christoph Bergs, ‘Reality Check: No-Fly Zone Ukraine,’ Military Aviation History (YouTube, 7 March 2022), accessed 12 March 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hob1nbP_UKM&ab_channel=MilitaryAviationHistory
Timothy P. McIlmail, No-Fly Zones: The Imposition and Enforcement of Air Exclusion Regimes over Bosnia and Iraq, 17 Loy. L.A. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 35 (1994). Available at: https://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/ilr/vol17/iss1/2
Rob McLaughlin, ‘United Nations Security Council practice in relation to use of force in no-fly zones and martime exclusion zones,’ in Weller, Marc (ed), The Oxford Handbook of the Use of Force in International Law, Oxford University Press USA, Ebook: 2015.
Michael N. Schmitt, Clipped Wings: Effective and Legal No-Fly Zone Rules of Engagement, 20 Loy. L.A. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 727 (1998). Available at: https://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/ilr/vol20/iss4/3