War Stories

How on Earth Is Anyone Still Talking About a No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine?

There are better ways to help that wouldn’t kick-start World War III.

A sign that says "No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine" in a crowd of people at a pro-Ukraine rally on the Brighton Beach Boardwalk
A terrible idea! Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

It’s time to banish the phrase “no-fly zone.”

Dropping it would clarify the debate about whether to impose one in the skies over Ukraine. The term makes doing such a thing sound so easy, purely protective, almost passive, like a safety patrol guard holding a stop sign at a crosswalk.

A more accurate term—one that better describes its scope and stakes—is “air combat operation,” which, under these circumstances, translates as “going to war against Russia.” Would 74 percent of Americans—the number who say they support a no-fly zone—back that?

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At this point, much of Washington seems to recognize that mounting a no-fly zone above Ukraine in an effort to frustrate Vladimir Putin’s invasion would be a catastrophically bad idea. The White House has waved away the suggestion, and there’s been little pushback even from many Republicans looking for new reasons to oppose President Joe Biden.

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Yet a debate persists. It was the hottest topic during this Sunday’s political talk shows, and on Meet the Press, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he believed that the option shouldn’t be “taken off the table.” The main reason the notion hasn’t disappeared is that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—quite rightly the most admired political leader in the world—continues to ask for one. It seems almost churlish to dismiss his request out of hand.

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To impose a no-fly zone means just that—to prevent any airplanes, other than our own, from flying in a defined area of space. In the past few decades, the U.S. has done this over Iraq, Libya, and Serbia, to protect civilians from attacks by tyrannical regimes. But protection requires attacking the attackers—shooting down airplanes that come into the zone and bombing air-defense weapons that threaten our own airplanes.

These zones are elaborate, complex undertakings. In the decade between our two wars in Iraq, when the U.S. and United Kingdom imposed no-fly zones in the south (to protect Shiites) and the north (to protect Kurds), American combat planes flew over 200,000 sorties and dropped more than 1,000 bombs on more than 240 targets. In a two-day campaign in 1996 to destroy Iraqi surface-to-air missiles, they launched 44 cruise missiles.

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In 1999, during the Serbian war, U.S. and NATO combat jets took 78 days to establish a no-fly zone over an area about the size of Connecticut. And the planes fired 743 advanced air-to-ground missiles in order to destroy 44 Serbian surface-to-air missile sites and a smattering of anti-air guns. (Establishing a no-fly zone requires the military to obliterate ground weapons that could target its own planes.) Even so, two of those jets were shot down, and the U.S. never established air supremacy—full control of the air and the elimination of all threats from the ground.

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Ukraine is 50 percent larger than all of Iraq and eight times the size of Serbia. And while a no-fly zone wouldn’t have to cover the entire country, it would have to protect the areas around Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, and the humanitarian corridors to Lviv and further west. Also, compared with the armies of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, the Russian military in Ukraine has more—and longer-range—airplanes and air-defense systems.

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This would be a much more extensive, complex, and—more to the point—deadly operation.

In other words, the United States and NATO would be at war with Russia. They would damage a lot of Russian military gear and kill a number of Russian troops, even if they refrained from bombarding Russian tanks, vehicles, and supply lines—and, once in the fight, there would be pressure to do that as well. Vladimir Putin might reasonably think that was the next step. In the fog of war, he might think the NATO planes were doing that already—and might respond accordingly.

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A no-fly zone might not even be a very effective way of protecting the Ukrainian civilians who are coming under attack. Most of them have been wounded or killed by Russian artillery, not by Russian airplanes.

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There are also other, better ways to counter Russian forces from the air. In recent days, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that NATO now has a “green light” to send Ukraine fighter planes, including Russian-built MiGs, which Ukrainian pilots know how to fly. They could be used to bust up Russian armored convoys, supply lines, and other concentrations of military power. For NATO to send airplanes would be a continuation, writ large, of the other types of weapons that it has been sending Ukraine for several days—a practice that Putin doesn’t seem to regard as direct intervention, at least for now.

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When he began the invasion, Putin said any attempt by the West to interfere would unleash “consequences you have never seen.” Many interpreted the remark as a threat to use nuclear weapons. If the U.S. and other NATO nations did directly intervene in the war, they could grind the Russian offensive to a halt—and probably defeat the Russian military outright—in a matter of days. But then, Putin would face a choice: to surrender in utter humiliation—or to fire a few tactical nuclear missiles at key targets in Ukraine, or perhaps at air bases in NATO countries, in an attempt to regain some leverage in cease-fire negotiations.

It’s because Russia has nuclear weapons that Biden has stressed from the beginning that neither the U.S. nor NATO would intervene in the fight directly. Putin’s nukes are also why NATO’s leaders quickly dismissed Zelensky’s request for a no-fly zone. To set one up would mean intervening in the fight directly, and that indeed could trigger World War III. Defending Ukraine is important. It is worth much trouble and sacrifice. But it isn’t worth that.

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