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What is a no-fly zone, and why has NATO so far rejected calls for one over Ukraine?

WASHINGTON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine to limit attacks from Russian warplanes — a request the West has firmly rejected even as the death and destruction mounts.

Top leaders of NATO — the alliance of 30 nations, including the U.S. — have repeatedly ruled it out, saying that imposing a no-fly zone over key parts of Ukraine could drag the alliance directly into Moscow’s war against its neighbor. They’re unlikely to budge on the issue for that reason, experts said, since a no-fly zone would essentially require NATO to take over the air war that Ukraine is currently waging against Russian attacks.

As recently as Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated NATO’s position, saying on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that President Joe Biden has been “very clear about one thing all along, as well, which is we’re not going to put the United States in direct conflict with Russia.”

What is a no-fly zone, and what would enforcing one take?

No-fly zones prevent a country from using warplanes to attack military targets or civilians on the ground, but simply declaring airspace off-limits is not enough.

Once declared, NATO would be responsible for patrolling the area with its own planes and being prepared to fire at enemy ones to ensure the safety of civilians on the ground.

“There’s tremendous reluctancy on the part of the Pentagon and the political establishment,” Mark Cancian, senior adviser to the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview. “The president and NATO have been very emphatic, and the reason is that it’s a combat mission.” 

“We’d be flying dozens of aircraft, maybe hundreds of aircraft, over Ukraine and shooting at the Russians, and they’d be shooting at us,” Cancian said.

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“It would mean war!” Michael O’Hanlon, the director of foreign policy research at the left-leaning think tank the Brookings Institution, said in an emailed statement, adding that imposing a no-fly zone could involve NATO using force to ensure its own planes are safe, allowing them to patrol and enforce.

“One would need to incapacitate the adversary’s air defense network, meaning not just planes but radars and communications sites — all the people manning them — and unless you can do it all by jamming, that requires bombs that will in turn kill people,” O’Hanlon said.

Countries within the NATO alliance, which does not include Ukraine, have so far sent arms to Kyiv while levying harsh economic sanctions against Russia, but they have resisted engaging in any action that might bring them into direct conflict with Russia.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that while the Russian invasion was “horrific,” it was NATO’s responsibility to keep its member states safe.

The only way to implement a no-fly zone is “to send NATO planes, fighter planes into Ukrainian airspace, and then impose that no-fly zone by shooting down Russian planes. And our assessment is that we understand the desperation,” Stoltenberg said during a news conference. “But we also believe that if we did that, we’ll end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe, involving many more countries, and causing much more human suffering.”

Over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that any move to create a no-fly zone above Ukraine would be viewed as “participation” in the conflict.

“That very second, we will view them as participants of the military conflict, and it would not matter what members they are,” Putin said.

Calls for and against

While most U.S. lawmakers are opposed to a no-fly zone, a few have said they are willing to consider it or have even called for it.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., tweeted late last month: “The fate of #Ukraine is being decided tonight, but also the fate of the west. Declare a #NoFlyZone over Ukraine at the invitation of their sovereign govt.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday that he wouldn’t take a no-fly zone off the table yet.

In an emotional address last week, Zelenskyy slammed NATO for rejecting his pleas for a no-fly zone, arguing the decision was giving Russia a “green light” to continue shelling Ukraine.

Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the conservative-leaning, Washington-based think tank the American Foreign Policy Council, said as long as Russia continues to impede the ability of civilians to safely flee conflict zones, calls for a no-fly zone are unlikely to cease.

“You can do so if you’re sort of piercing the veil of sovereignty to protect innocence,” Berman said. “So the dynamic I see evolving here is the longer the Russians set and then violate cease-fires, don’t allow humanitarian corridors — all of that strengthens the argument for a no-fly zone.” 

Jim Townsend, a senior fellow with the Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security’s transatlantic security program, said Zelenskyy is “desperate for anything that he can get his hands on, and we’re desperate to get it to him.”

“But a no-fly zone — it would be an air campaign, and as soon as we started that air campaign, we’d be at war with Russia, and I’m sure that would escalate to places we don’t want it to be pretty quickly,” Townsend said.

When has a no-fly zone been enacted in recent years?

No-fly zones were enacted over Iraq to protect civilians after the Gulf War, over Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Balkans conflict and over Libya during a NATO coalition-led intervention in the country’s civil war in 2011.

The U.S., United Kingdom and France launched Operation Provide Comfort in 1991 to establish and enforce a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, protecting the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s air forces. Another no-fly zone was later established to protect Shiite Muslims in the south.

The no-fly zones continued until the 2003 war in Iraq.

NATO enforced a no-fly zone over Bosnia from April 1993 to December 1995.

The United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone, enforced by NATO, over Libya in 2011 to “protect civilians under threat of attack in the country.”