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Ukraine and the No-Fly Zone Temptation

Ukraine and the No-Fly Zone Temptation

American and British forces may have made it look easy in the past, but it’s hardly straightforward or risk-free.

Giselle Donnelly

From the earliest hours of Vladimir Putin’s invasion to topple his government, President Volodymyr Zelensky has appealed to the United States and NATO to “close the sky” over Ukraine by enforcing a no-fly zone against Russian combat aircraft. The idea has been seized upon by Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois—who is an Air Force pilot—and now over the weekend by retired four-star Air Force General Philip Breedlove. Others have been chiming in, including former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and chess master and Putin critic Garry Kasparov.

The idea of a no-fly zone merits strong consideration. We may soon see Ukrainians slaughtered by Russian invaders who enjoy considerable military superiority. It has also become clear that the war over Ukraine’s future is part of a larger moral and strategic struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. No one focused clearly on what is at stake thinks that Putin can be allowed to win.

There are serious risks involved in a no-fly zone. It is a step to open war with Putin, a man already making nuclear threats. Let’s carefully assess.

The models for proposed no-fly zones over Ukraine are the Iraq operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch/Southern Focus, which evolved from Operation Provide Comfort and ran from the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 to the start of the second in 2003; and Operation Deny Flight over the Balkans from 1993 to 1995. It is a mistake to remember the no-fly zone operations as benign missions. Even though the American and British aircraft enforcing the zone faced almost no intercepts from Iraqi aircraft, they were continuously, if ineffectively, fired upon by Iraqi air defenses. In response, the rules of engagement were loosened to permit offensive strikes against sites, including command and control nodes, deemed to be threatening. This provided a small-scale and slightly covert version of the pre-Desert Storm air campaign, comprehensively destroying Iraqi air defenses to permit coalition special operations forces to enter Iraq in preparation for the full-scale Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Deny Flight experience was similarly escalatory, transmogrifying ultimately into Operation Deliberate Force, which eviscerated the Serbian military.

These operations were not cheap. The supplemental appropriations needed just to offset the incremental costs of fuel and other expendables were several billion dollars per year. They were even more expensive when measured in the effect on Air Force fleets. Just to keep Southern Watch going required an ad hoc air wing of more than a hundred planes of all sorts; not just several squadrons of fighters, but tankers along with electronic combat and reconnaissance and other support aircraft. In the long course of the operations—and no one should anticipate that the Ukraine crisis will soon be resolved—more than two hundred thousand sorties were flown by U.S. planes. Our British allies flew tens of thousands as well.

Southern Watch likewise benefited from access to a giant Saudi air base in the middle of the Kingdom’s southern desert, far beyond Iraq’s ability to strike it. (Though today they’d be well within range of Houthi capabilities.) Operations over Ukraine would have to be much larger and, ideally, make use of airfields in Poland and Romania and, for larger support aircraft, in Germany. Russian forces have the ability to target all these sites, and, especially if his Ukrainian hopes are dashed, Putin just might welcome the opportunity to have at NATO directly. That, in turn, would trigger an Article V moment within the alliance. Transatlantic solidarity has been, thus far, remarkably resilient and is beginning to rise to the occasion. Yet wakening it from its decades-long slumber too quickly might prove a fatal shock.

The decisive point is—as ever—really on the ground. The Russian air force has been ineffective almost to the point of incompetence up to now, failing to achieve air dominance and conducting a number of poorly supported, and thus suicidal, air assaults. What is to be feared in the Ukrainian sky are Russian artillery shells and barrages of short-range missiles. To mitigate or eliminate these threats will require counter-strikes, be they from attack aircraft or, better, matching Ukrainian fire strikes.

The Ukrainian military has done extraordinarily well with counter-battery fires in the Donbas along the line of contact, but one of the terrible omissions in aid to Ukraine since 2014 is the failure to supply sufficient capabilities and capacity in this crucial area. One of the most effective weapons for this has been Ukraine’s recently acquired Turkish drones; social media is full of classic “gun camera” video of these drones striking Russian supply columns and multiple rocket launchers; more drones would bolster Ukraine’s prospects substantially.

What are the combination of methods we can employ at this state to turn back Russian forces? Sanctions and military assistance are important. Are they enough? We must offer all the aid to the Ukrainians we can, while thinking through the consequences of our actions. Imagine a world where Ukraine is saved and the West prevails. Consider a future in which Ukraine goes lost and the United States and our allies retreat, disheartened and deflated. When the question is “Who lost Ukraine?,” what will we see in our mirrors?

Giselle Donnelly, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a resident fellow in defense and national security at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: US Navy,, Public Domain,

RussiaU.S. Foreign PolicyEurope