PARIS – Should Nato enforce a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Ukraine? That’s the argument some officials in the West have been making, suggesting that the alliance should close the sky to Russian aircraft in order to support Ukraine’s defence against Moscow’s invasion.
A NFZ would undoubtedly help Ukraine’s defences by denying Russia use of the air to conduct strikes on Ukrainian positions and offer air support to its ground troops.
But as the Russia expert Mark Galeotti told my colleague Megan Gibson on the New Statesman’s World Review podcast, a NFZ is not a magical shield that can be conjured up out of nowhere. It must be enforced by Nato against aircraft breaching it, as Russia would not presumably be deterred from flying over Ukraine merely because the alliance had declared that the country’s skies are now a NFZ. That, in turn, would mean the alliance using its air defences and aircraft to shoot down Russian aircraft, and Russia targeting Nato air defences and aircraft. Both sides would eventually succeed.
What happens then? Say Nato aircraft are launching from a base in Poland, a Nato member. A Russian cruise missile attack on that base could lead Poland to trigger Article 5 of the Nato charter, which considers an attack on one member to be an attack on all. Likewise, Russia would likely consider a Nato plane shooting down one of its jets to be an act of war. That would leave both nuclear-armed blocs on the brink of an unprecedented confrontation, with the potential for a dramatic escalation.
And even if both sides managed to avoid an escalation the first time, there is no telling that the second plane shot down would not drag Nato into a war with Russia, nor the third, nor the tenth.
“I would be reluctant to rely on Vladimir Putin’s restraint and common sense right now,” Galeotti told me.
The people arguing for a NFZ need to explain exactly how they would avoid this scenario occurring when the first Russian or Nato plane is shot down. Otherwise, they are arguing for the war in Ukraine to escalate into a world war between nuclear powers.