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Here’s Why We Need a Reality Check on No-Fly Zones

When a hostile nation is bombing civilians from the skies, it’s human nature to want to stop those aircraft from flying.

The problem is, preventing Russia’s warplanes from launching their deadly strikes on Ukraine by imposing a “no-fly zone” would involve shooting them out the sky. That itself becomes an act of war against a nuclear-armed power.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has issued several calls for such a zone to protect civilians and prevent Russia from using its key strategic advantage: its powerful air force. A member of the U.K. House of Commons Defense Committee, Tobias Ellwood, added his voice to the cause, as have Ukrainians themselves, terrified of Moscow’s bombardment.

But the flow-on effects of a no-fly zone would be catastrophic. For one, it would give Russia cause to intensify its nuclear preparedness. President Vladimir Putin has already ordered his nuclear forces to high alert, raising the threat that tensions could escalate into atomic warfare. The direct involvement of NATO nations shooting down Russian jets would put the entire region at risk: The aircraft themselves would be targets, as would the military bases they take off from and the European countries that host them.

It’s a step these countries are not prepared to take, given the risks, said Douglas Birkey, executive director of the Washington-based Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “Putin has backed himself into a corner — with so much of his own credibility on the line, he cannot afford to lose in Ukraine,” Birkey told me. “This is personal, this is existential for Putin, and the nuclear situation is particularly concerning.”

So what seems like a logical and relatively less risky solution that doesn’t involve troops on the ground is one with deadly implications. NATO, the White House and the U.K. have all ruled out establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

We saw increasingly desperate calls for one in Syria from 2012, when President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was conducting missile attacks and dropping barrel bombs on his own civilians. It’s hard to describe the devastation caused by these cheap, makeshift weapons. They’re usually filled with high explosives, along with shrapnel, oil and other chemicals like fertilizers. Their indiscriminate use — Assad’s forces dropped nearly 70,000 barrel bombs on heavily populated civilian neighborhoods, often from low-flying helicopters — along with their dubious accuracy and large payload killed more than 10,000 Syrians. They terrorized people and made it clear there was no safe place to be, day or night.

But the U.S. and its allies chose not to impose a no-fly zone, even against a significantly weaker air force like Syria’s. The risk of war in an already unstable region that was being roiled by Arab revolutions from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen was deemed too great.

Such havens have been enforced with mixed results; they haven’t always led to the peaceful end of a conflict, nor have they reduced civilian casualties. In 2011, just as Libya’s civilian uprising was pressuring Muammar Gaddafi, the United Nations Security Council voted to implement a no-fly zone over the North African nation to prevent his forces from crushing the rebellion and attacking civilians. The resolution authorized “all necessary measures” to protect a defenseless population. Their bravery in challenging one of the world’s longest-standing dictators was intoxicating.

For seven months, NATO forces bombed Libyan government positions. Gaddafi — known for his brutal and punishing regime — was overthrown and later killed by his own people. But the alliance’s attacks also hit residential homes and other sites. More than a decade later, the country is crippled by violent divisions and unable to form a cohesive government. NATO’s air support for rebel groups, and the regime-change that ensued, infuriated Putin, who felt he had been duped by the UN into voting for the no-fly zone. This resentment may play a part in his posturing today.

But there have been successes. After the first Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. and its coalition partners established — without the backing of the UN — a no-fly zone in Iraq to prevent attacks by Saddam Hussein’s forces against the Kurdish population in the north. The following year, another was created to protect Shiite civilians. As Birkey notes, these zones created a buffer that allowed people to live without being constantly under attack from the sky. In Bosnia, Operation Deny Flight was implemented in 1993 with UN support to protect vulnerable populations.

But in neither Iraq nor Bosnia were strong militaries or nuclear weapons in play. There is no precedent of establishing and maintaining a no-fly zone against any significant resistance.

Moscow, with its large-scale strike capabilities and countless guided and unguided missiles, is an entirely different scenario. Russia’s air force is second only to the U.S. and we cannot rely on the ongoing poor coordination between the country’s ground forces and their air defense systems, as Justin Bronk described this week in an article for the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. Sooner or later, Russian air capabilities will improve, and the loss of life and infrastructure will be far higher than we’re seeing today.

The international community needs to resist popular calls for no-fly zones and focus on other ways of assisting Zelenskiy’s beleaguered people. There are less risky alternatives, like stepping up sanctions, convincing Turkey to place more stringent restrictions on Russian vessels traveling through the Bosporus and supplying more arms and aircraft to Kyiv. But this needs to be done now, before Putin unleashes more force. To delay will risk everything for Ukraine.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Ukraine Negotiations Are Futile Yet Necessary: Therese Raphael

• Putin’s Strategic Mistakes Are Aiding Zelenskiy: James Stavridis

• Ukraine Sees Bad Omens in Putin’s Assault on Syria: Ruth Pollard

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ruth Pollard is a columnist and editor with Bloomberg Opinion. Previously she was South and Southeast Asia Government team leader at Bloomberg News. She has reported from India and across the Middle East and focuses on foreign policy, defense and security.

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