On Friday night President Zelensky called for the West to enforce a no-fly-zone over Ukraine, saying that the refusal to do so gave Russia in effect a “green light” to keep up its bombardment of cities. He had earlier said that if Western leaders did not have the “strength and courage” to “shut down” the skies “then give me the planes”.
But in a meeting on Friday, Nato turned down the request to enforce such a zone, for fear of being drawn into direct conflict with Russia’s forces and escalating the war beyond Ukraine. "We are not part of this conflict," Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said, in rejecting Ukraine’s request. The US, as the anchor of Nato and in essence, the assurance for Europe’s security, has itself steadily refused to back such a move, although Spain’s foreign minister, in remarks ahead of the meeting, had indicated some sympathy for discussing it. In case they were in doubt of his views, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday that he would view a no fly zone enforced by other countries as just such an escalation.
Nato’s main reason is the fear that Putin’s reaction to what he would see as escalation cannot be estimated. It is not beyond conception that he would resort to nuclear weapons, as he has all but threatened. While that might bring the threat in turn of huge retaliation against Russia, so did this invasion itself in the shape at least of economic sanctions – and concern for the Russian people does not seem to have deterred him in the slightest. A small risk of an unthinkably devastating attack is one that Western leaders cannot face running.
That is the dominant reason. But there are others – no fly zones are difficult in practice and in law to set up and enforce, as the experience in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Libya showed in spades. There is the question of what the governing authority is. In this case, would it be Nato – inflammatory to Russia – or would there be a chance of it under the auspices of the United Nations, as some have suggested? But Russia holds a veto on the UN Security Council, the UN body whose votes have binding authority, unlike its General Assembly (where a large majority of countries have condemned the invasion).
The rules of engagement are also immensely difficult to set. Can those patrolling the skies fire only against other aircraft, or can they target threats on the ground, for example surface to air missiles? Would it be over the whole of Ukraine or just the western and central part still clearly in Ukrainian hands? If so, would that amount to conceding Russian control of the other parts?
In addition, while Zelensky seems to feel clearly that shutting the skies would help his military chances, Ukraine, while enormously outpowered in the skies, has inflicted aerial damage in turn on Russian forces. It has used both aircraft and drones, the latter reported to have had some success against the convoy approaching the capital Kyiv.
Above all, there is the question of which nations would agree to take part in enforcing the no-fly-zone. Even if under the umbrella of an organisation such as Nato, they might be expected to attract special retaliation from Russia.
That is why Zelensky’s call to send him planes might have more success – although to date, it has had none. In recent days, in a confusing barrage of messages, Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief said that EU members would send planes to Ukraine, to be flown by Ukrainian pilots. He indicated that the planes would come from the former Soviet bloc countries Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria, citing the number of planes from each – Russian-made planes with which Ukrainian forces would be familiar. It seemed as if at least the outlines of a deal had been discussed. But in turn, each capital said emphatically that no such planes were on their way. Slovakia made clear one aspect of the problem: if it sent planes, could it reach a deal with Poland to guard its airspace? Apparently not.
Separately Erik Prince, defence contractor and founder of the Blackwater group, said that he had suggested last year that the US give ageing planes headed for the scrapheap to Ukraine, and perhaps veteran pilots to fly them. It could then say that its forces were not taking part in any conflict, he added, suggesting that that would have helped forestall the conflict. There has been silence from the White House on these remarks.
However, there are new reports that the US is working with Poland on a deal which would see Poland supply Russian-made jets to Ukraine. In return, the US would supply American F-16 jets to Poland to replenish its stock.
Now that the West has made its first economic moves in sanctions, its first offers of military help by road, as well as its first offers of aid and help for migrants, it is up against much harder choices. On the economic side, it is now confronting calls to cut off supplies of oil and gas from Russia, with consequent higher prices and more damage to its own economies. On the military side, it is facing these calls for helping Ukraine retain some control of the skies. Of the two options for which Zelensky has called, supplying planes is by far the easier and it is the one enjoying at least elements of discussion. But even that comes with huge risks and difficulties and those at the moment are proving an overwhelming obstacle.