No-fly zone over Ukraine ‘would not help’, says head of UK’s armed forces

Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said most of the offensive was coming from Russian artillery.

Geraldine Scott
Sunday 06 March 2022 12:05
A Ukrainian soldier and a militia man help a fleeing family crossing the Irpin River on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine (Emilio Morenatti/AP)
A Ukrainian soldier and a militia man help a fleeing family crossing the Irpin River on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

It is not inevitable that Russia takes over Ukraine, the head of the UK’s armed forces has said, but a no-fly zone “would not help”.

Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said the invasion “is not going well” for the Kremlin, with Russia’s military might not proving as strong as expected in the face of the Ukrainian resistance.

But he said the key call of Kyiv – a no-fly zone – would not help those on the ground.

Asked if it was inevitable that Russia takes over Ukraine, he said: “No. I think we’ve seen a Russian invasion that is not going well. I think we’re also seeing a remarkable resistance by Ukraine, both its armed forces and its people.”

(PA Graphics)

On Sunday, Ukrainian newspaper The Kyiv Independent reported that the country’s president Volodymyr Zelensky had reiterated his demand, as he said: “The world has the power to close our skies for Russian rockets and aircraft.”

But Sir Tony told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme: “The advice that we as senior military professionals are giving our politicians is to avoid doing things that are tactically ineffective and definitely to avoid doing things that tactically might lead to miscalculation or escalation.

“The no-fly zone would not help.

“Most of the shelling is coming from artillery, most of the destruction is coming from artillery, it’s not coming from Russian aircraft.

“If we were to police a no-fly zone, it means that we probably have to take out Russian defence systems and we would have Nato aircraft in the air alongside Russian aircraft, and then the potential of shooting them down and then that leads to an escalation.”

The view was echoed by Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, who said it would be “very difficult, very challenging” but added “we will do everything short of that to support Ukrainians”.

Refugees, mostly women with children, arrive at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland (Visar Kryeziu/AP)

“We’re not going to get ourselves into a direct military conflict with (Vladimir) Putin because that would be a massive escalation, but also that feeds Putin’s narrative,” he told the Trevor Phillips On Sunday programme on Sky News.

“Putin wants to say that he’s actually in a struggle with the West – he’s not.”

Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey also said the implementation of a no-fly zone would give the Russian president a “get-out-of-jail-free card”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told ITV News: “Everybody understands why we can’t have a no-fly zone, why direct military assistance is not possible. That means sanctions have to be the strongest we have ever seen, the most effective we’ve ever seen.”

Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly called for a no-fly zone, but Vladimir Putin warned that imposing one would be considered “participation in the armed conflict”.

General Philip Breedlove, a former Nato supreme allied commander Europe, told Times Radio that allies should enforce a humanitarian no-fly zone, with different rules of engagement than a military one “whereby we talk to our enemy, and we say, we are not going to fire on you unless you fire on us”.

People take part in a rally outside Custom House Square in Belfast (David Young/PA)

But Mr Raab said he did not think Mr Putin would agree to such a move.

He told Times Radio: “I think it’s interesting, I just can’t see why Russia would agree to that and what we’ve been clear on is we’re not going to get into direct military conflict between the UK or Nato and Russia.”

The minister added: “We’ve had ongoing discussions with all of our allies and, indeed, with the Russians, and if we thought that there was an easier or credible route to provide that humanitarian support, of course, we’d want to look at it more seriously.”

The hopes of a temporary ceasefire in two Ukrainian cities were revived on Sunday, after a previous attempt on Saturday could not go ahead due to continued shelling.

Eduard Basurin, the head of the military in separatist-held Donetsk territory, said safe passage corridors for residents of the besieged port city of Mariupol and the city of Volnovakha will reopen.

Asked whether he thought the second attempt would hold, Mr Raab told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme: “I’m very sceptical about any assurances or commitments that President Putin makes.

(PA Graphics)

“Of course, we want to do everything we can. We should exhaust all opportunities to try and provide humanitarian relief. But I think you only have to look at his track record in Syria to see that we need to be very careful to test any assurances Vladimir Putin gives.”

Ukrainian deputy prime minister Olha Stefanishyna told the programme Ukrainians would “never trust” what the Russians say and that they know “the Russian playbook by heart”.

Meanwhile, Mr Raab defended the UK’s support to Ukrainians fleeing the country, after reports in the French media that 150 refugees had been turned away at Calais because they did not have a visa.

French interior minister Gerald Darmanin is reported to have written to Home Secretary Priti Patel accusing London of a “totally inadequate response” and “lack of humanity” and calling on her to set up a proper consular presence in Calais to deal with the humanitarian crisis.

Mr Raab did not deny the refugees had been turned away, and said: “Look, if we just open the door not only will we not benefit the people that we need to, the genuine refugees, but I think we undermine the popular support for this very thing, so I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. We need to make sure that we’re acting for those that need our support.”

More than 1.5 million refugees have fled Ukraine in the past 10 days in the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War, the United Nations has said.

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