Why is Nato reluctant to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine?

Military alliance wary of provoking wider war with Vladimir Putin’s Russia by deploying peacekeeping planes to shield skies over Kyiv and block air strikes

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 30 June 2022 15:29 BST
Ukrainian ambassador asks Nato for a ‘no-fly zone’ over country

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly called on the West to declare and enforce a “no-fly zone” over its airspace to block the Russian Air Force from attacking its cities.

Such a measure would effectively render Russia’s huge military superiority in the air null and void but would require extensive policing, presumably by planes belonging to the Western allies representing Nato.

The military alliance is not obliged to come to the defence of a non-member state like Ukraine and the sight of RAF jets taking to the skies over Kyiv, even in a clear peacekeeping capacity to protect civilians, would be interpreted as an act of war by Russia, potentially gravely exacerbating the present conflict and even dragging US, EU and UK forces into all-out war in Eastern Europe.

Nevertheless, Mr Zelensky has repeated his calls for support in video messages to both the House of Commons in the UK and the House of Representatives in the US.

In an earlier message, he claimed that Russia had continued to bombard targets close by as delegates were meeting for peace talks on the Belarussian border.

“I believe that Russia is trying to apply pressure in this unsubtle way,” he said. “Do not waste time. We do not accept such tactics. Fair negotiations can occur when one side does not hit the other side with rocket artillery at the very moment of negotiations.”

But his appeals have again and again been met with a sympathetic rejection.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki has reiterated that US president Joe Biden “has been very clear that he is not intending to send US troops to fight a war with Russia”.

She continued: “I think what’s important to note here is that this would be a step toward, because a no-fly zone would require implementation.

“It would require deploying US military to enforce, which would be a direct conflict, a potentially direct conflict, and potentially war with Russia, which is something we are not planning to be a part of.”

Speaking during a recent trip to Estonia, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said: “It’s very, very important to understand Nato is a defensive alliance. This is a time when miscalculation and misunderstanding is all too possible and it’s therefore crucial that we get that message over.

“When it comes to a no-fly zone in the skies above Ukraine we have to accept the reality that that involves shooting down Russian planes... That’s a very, very big step, it’s simply not on the agenda of any Nato country.”

His defence secretary, Ben Wallace, has likewise warned that committing to a no-zone fly would be tantamount to declaring war on Vladimir Putin’s forces.

However, that has not stopped some senior Conservatives, including David Davis and Tobias Ellwood, from calling for the UK to intervene militarily to help Ukraine.

Former Brexit secretary Mr Davis said in late April that even the most “ferocious sanctions” were insufficient and argued: “If Nato does not act now, Ukraine will be defeated in a matter of days. Therefore if we do not provide military support, more than 40 million Ukrainians will go from living in a democracy to living under a brutal dictatorship.

“It is far too late to get boots on the ground but it is not too late to provide air support to the Ukrainian army, which may neutralise Putin’s overwhelming armoured superiority.”

This map shows the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
This map shows the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (PA)

Mr Ellwood, chair of the Commons Defence Committee, likewise insisted: “We cannot be timid, we cannot be risk averse. We’ve got to be more united. We’ve now got to assist Ukraine militarily, and look to see how that can be done. Whether it be with our weapon systems, a no-fly zone, we need to be far more front-footed on this.”

The pair were shouted down for their apparent failure to understand the consequences of the position they were advocating, with Mr Davis memorably labelled “thick as mince” for his trouble by the prime minister’s estranged former adviser Dominic Cummings.

No-fly zones have been successfully implemented in the past, notably during the Gulf War of 1991 when the Kurds and Marsh Arabs of northern and southern Iraq respectively were shielded from airborne chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein, but the present circumstances appear too fraught to make the tactic tenable.

While it is tough to sit back and watch Russia’s military assault against a free, democratic nation unfold from the sidelines, the UK and its Nato allies are continuing to supply the courageous Ukrainian resistance with weapons and aid.

The situation could also change as the war rumbles on and many continue to argue for no-fly zones over civilian areas only or above the refugee corridors to Poland, Moldova, Hungary and Slovakia, which could eventually become possible, depending on what transpires.

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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