Main Image Credit A US Air Force F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter and an F-22A Raptor. Courtesy of US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons
Russian forces continue to subject Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol to brutal and indiscriminate bombardment, and have already killed thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers. There is a natural and understandable clamour in many Western countries for a no-fly zone to prevent the Russian Air Force from operating over all or part of Ukraine. This would be a major mistake for both military and political reasons.
Military Arguments Against a No-Fly Zone
There are two primary military arguments against an attempt to impose a no-fly zone (NFZ) over all or part of Ukraine. The first, and most obvious, is that it would be a highly escalatory step. An NFZ would explicitly require Western pilots to shoot down any Russian aircraft which attempted to fly in Ukrainian airspace. It would also require a large-scale suppression/destruction of enemy air defences (SEAD/DEAD) campaign to prevent the many short-, medium- and long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems which Russian forces have deployed inside Ukraine and around its borders from shooting down Western aircraft. Only the US has the aircraft and munitions stocks to conduct such a campaign effectively, and Russian SAMs would undoubtedly inflict losses in return. There would also be a significant risk of friendly fire since Ukrainian and Russian forces operate similar SAMs and aircraft, and Ukrainian forces may also be making use of captured Russian SAMs. Furthermore, it would be impossible to limit the SEAD/DEAD campaign to Ukrainian soil, since Russia has deployed four battalions of long-range S-400 SAM systems in Belarus, and also has such systems in the annexed territory of Crimea. These would be able to directly target not only Western fighters, but also the vulnerable aerial refuelling tanker orbits which would be required to enable those fighters to perform combat air patrols where the fighting is heaviest over central, southern and eastern Ukraine.
In other words, an NFZ would require Western pilots to deliberately kill (and risk being killed by) large numbers of Russian military personnel, including beyond Ukraine’s borders. It would amount to a declaration of war against Russia by those Western states. President Vladimir Putin has explicitly warned that any attempt to impose an NFZ would be regarded as such by Russia. Given his frustrations about the Russian Army’s slow progress, poor performance and heavy losses in Ukraine, and the ruinous sanctions which have been rapidly imposed, the likelihood of dramatic and rapid escalation in response to any Western intervention is high.
The second military argument against the imposition of an NFZ over Ukraine is that it would be largely ineffective in halting the brutal ongoing bombardments of Ukrainian cities. The Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) have conspicuously failed to achieve air superiority over Ukraine; Ukrainian fighters, ground attack jets and TB-2 UAVs continue to operate over large parts of the country, although their operations are more constrained than during the first week of the conflict. Far more importantly, most of the Ukrainian mobile medium- and short-ranged SAM systems are still operational. It is these SAMs that are inflicting the majority of losses on Russian fast jets and helicopters, rather than Ukrainian fighters. The inability to effectively target mobile Ukrainian SAMs has forced Russian aircraft to operate largely at low altitude, where they are unable to effectively employ precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and are vulnerable to the ever-increasing number of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) in the hands of Ukrainian troops. The VKS have been increasing the number of fast jet sorties flown during the second week of the invasion, with most being flown at night to minimise the MANPADS threat. Alongside fighter sweeps and stand-off launches of Kh-31P anti-radiation missiles to suppress Ukrainian SAMs, this activity has also involved an increasing number of Su-34 bomber sorties dropping largely unguided bombs on Kharkiv and Chernihiv in the north and Mariupol in the south of Ukraine. Nevertheless, most of the Russian firepower being used to bombard these besieged Ukrainian cities is being delivered by multi-launch rocket-artillery systems (MLRS), cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and conventional artillery. An NFZ would not target these artillery or missile systems. Furthermore, the positions of Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol – close to Russian/Belarusian territory and airbases – would make reliably intercepting such raids a very difficult task for Western fighters. The latter would need to operate within range of dense ground-based air defences and hundreds of kilometres from usable NATO airbases.
The unified response to Russia's aggression could easily be shattered by a direct NATO military intervention, even if it was organised under the auspices of a ‘coalition of the willing’
Continuing to supply MANPADS, and exploring options to supply Ukraine with the legacy Soviet- or Russian-made SAM systems which remain in the inventories of several eastern NATO member states, would be a more reliable means of limiting the already underwhelming effectiveness of Russian airpower than an NFZ. Supplying replacement MiG-29 fighters for the Ukrainian Air Force might marginally improve its capabilities, but has greater political and therefore escalatory significance for both sides. Compared to mobile SAMs, the airbases that MiG-29s rely on make them more vulnerable to Russian cruise and ballistic missile attacks. The process of removing NATO-standard crypto, identification systems, radios and other equipment which cannot be sent to Ukraine, while training Ukrainian pilots to be combat-effective in an unfamiliar cockpit layout, would also take weeks at least. With a very short range at low altitudes (where both sides are having to operate), MiG-29s would also not be able to provide persistent defensive cover in contested areas like mobile SAMs can.
Political Arguments Against a No-Fly Zone
Perhaps more important than the military arguments against the imposition of an NFZ over Ukraine are the political arguments. There are three main considerations that should caution Western leaders against taking such a step.
The first is that the limited military effectiveness and undoubted emotional satisfaction which could be gained through an NFZ effort by a coalition of willing Western states would be more than offset in the medium term by the geopolitical fracturing effect it would have. So far, the response from Western countries (including those who are not in NATO such as Finland, Sweden and Switzerland) to Russia’s overt and unprovoked military aggression has been extraordinarily rapid, well-coordinated and unified. The unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia have already forced the Kremlin to impose currency controls, halted trading of the ruble, and left the country cut off from most global travel and trade mechanisms. The US and UK have banned Russian oil and gas imports, while European countries have committed to ending their long-term reliance on Russian fossil fuel exports – a policy which will cut off the lifeblood of the Russian economy. Western countries have also moved extremely rapidly to supply Ukraine with large quantities of military, financial and humanitarian aid, including large numbers of anti-tank weapons and MANPADS. Many other countries around the world have joined in condemning Russian aggression, and support from Russia’s key partner, China, has been muted at best. This unified response could easily be shattered by a direct military intervention by NATO member states, even if it was organised under the auspices of a ‘coalition of the willing’.
An official UN-sanctioned NFZ would require a Chapter VII Resolution, which can only be authorised by the UN Security Council. Since Russia and China are both permanent members with veto power, this would be impossible to achieve. Even if a tentative mandate were claimed under Article 51, much of the world would perceive an NFZ as a US-led military intervention – for without US enablers and combat power any NFZ would be impossible to impose – that threatened a global war. Even NATO and EU member states such as Germany and Finland, which have so far stood firmly behind efforts to isolate Russia and arm the Ukrainian resistance, would likely baulk at such a move. This would provide Russia with a diplomatic opening to paint NFZ participants as aggressive and irresponsible, and potentially undermine sanctions implementation and enforcement.
A no-fly zone would be a gift to Putin's chances of political survival and Russia's ability to continue the war in the face of self-imposed disaster
The second point is that Russia is currently facing economic ruin and unprecedented isolation as a pariah state, in addition to a grinding war of attrition in Ukraine which its armed forces and public were completely unprepared for. In two weeks, the visually confirmed equipment lost by the Russian Army includes over 150 main battle tanks; almost 200 medium armoured vehicles; 11 fixed wing and 11 rotary-winged combat aircraft; 25 SAM systems; and 300 trucks. The real total is undoubtedly significantly higher. Personnel losses are difficult to estimate reliably but range from several thousand to over 10,000. Progress on the ground remains slow, even in the south of the country, and problems with logistics and morale continue to be endemic in Russian formations. Even if the Russian Army manages to ‘win’ the conventional war against the Ukrainian regular army and capture Kyiv, Kharkiv and other key cities, it cannot hope to hold and control them for any length of time. The hatred which the brutal violence meted out by its artillery, tanks, missiles and aircraft has already generated ensures that Russian troops will face a unified and vicious insurgency throughout the territory they occupy, in addition to large-scale civil disobedience. Any client regime which the Kremlin might have hoped to impose through armed force would now have to be almost permanently propped up by a massive Russian troop presence which Moscow cannot afford or sustain. In other words, Putin has started an unnecessary and hugely costly war against a state which posed no credible military threat – a war which it now increasingly appears he cannot win in any long-term sense. Protests in Russian cities and rumblings of discontent from oligarchs facing financial ruin are likely to be only the beginning of his resulting domestic problems. However, an NFZ imposed by Western countries would be a gift to his chances of political survival and the domestic ability to continue the war in the face of self-imposed disaster.
A NFZ would gift Putin with a retroactive justification for the invasion by giving him the ‘NATO intervention’ which Kremlin propaganda has consistently sought to claim it was pre-empting by invading Ukraine. It would give the Russian Army a military opponent that could more credibly be used to explain away its heavy losses and lacklustre performance against its far smaller neighbour. It would also generate a rally-behind-the-flag effect which would stifle domestic protests, provide an excuse for even greater repressive brutality in Russia and thereby prolong the Russian state’s ability to continue active hostilities. In short, an NFZ could save Putin’s regime from a disaster that currently threatens to end it.
Finally, an NFZ would greatly increase the danger that Russia could resort to tactical nuclear weapons to try to reverse its military fortunes. Even if Putin tried to order a tactical nuclear use against Ukraine, there would likely be significant resistance against such a move within the power structures of the Kremlin and the Russian military. Even the most rabid hawks in Russia have trouble articulating how Ukraine poses any kind of existential military threat to Russia. It would be almost impossible to justify a nuclear first-use against a non-nuclear armed state whose people are so linguistically and culturally close to ordinary Russians, especially as part of a war which the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has tried to prevent the Russian public from even seeing. However, if Western forces were to join active combat operations against the Russian military, the calculus could change completely. With a sizable proportion of its combat power bogged down in Ukraine and beset by heavy losses and logistical failures, the Russian military might fear that it would be unable to mount an effective conventional response to NATO escalation elsewhere. As such, an attempt to impose an NFZ over Ukraine – which would necessarily involve Western military action against Russian SAMs and aircraft – might incentivise Russia to escalate rapidly to nuclear use to force NATO to back off and to pre-empt any further escalation. More cynically, direct combat with fighters from NATO countries could be used by the Kremlin as evidence of an existential threat, giving it a domestic excuse to use a nuclear weapon to force an unexpectedly defiant and effective Ukraine to surrender.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Justin Bronk
Senior Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology