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Zelensky has recently requested NATO to set up a no-fly zone over Ukraine hoping to reduce the bombing and NATO rejected this request. The main reason provided for this was not dragging the alliance in this conflict.

I am wondering about how could setting up such a no-fly zone actually be implemented in the current context. The announcement would be the easy part, but it is not clear how could NATO actually enforce it since it explicitly stated to not send any NATO troops to Ukraine.

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    I don't understand the question. Are you asking how NATO would shoot down Russian planes if they declare a no-fly zone? If so, the obvious answer is "with long-range anti-aircraft weapons or with their own planes". Are you thinking about something else?
    – Allure
    Mar 5, 2022 at 13:54
  • @Allure Yes, I am interested in how NATO can actually enforce it without troops on the ground and fighters in Ukraine's airspace (as repeatedly declared by NATO officials). I guess "long-range anti-aircraft weapons" would do the job, but I guess that would immediately involved NATO in the war.
    – Alexei
    Mar 5, 2022 at 16:51
  • In a word, ww3 .
    – eps
    Mar 5, 2022 at 22:49
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    @Alexei NATO would have to use anti-aircraft weapons or their own planes to shoot down Russian aircraft if they declare a no-fly zone. So yes, it would immediately involve NATO in the war. It does not have to involve NATO ground troops in Ukraine, however.
    – Allure
    Mar 6, 2022 at 0:13
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    I upvoted this question because of the title- people literally need to know what a nfz would actually mean.
    – Damila
    Mar 6, 2022 at 4:30

3 Answers 3

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Enforcing a no-fly zone would mean several things:

  • telling Russia that it can not fly its military aircraft over all, or portions, of Ukraine, a country that is not in NATO.

  • flying NATO aircraft over that airspace and using those NATO aircraft to shoot down Russian aircraft violating the no-fly order.

  • most likely it would also mean engaging with, and destroying, Russia surface to air missile systems (SAMs) that actively threaten NATO aircraft flying those interdiction patrols.

(the fact that the no-fly zone over Ukraine would be imposed at Ukraine's request, as an unjustly aggressed nation, changes zilch/nada/nothing to the above statements)

Further reading: THE DANGEROUS ALLURE OF THE NO-FLY ZONE


I am going to speculate here, but I suspect Zelinsky is well aware of the extreme nuclear escalation risks associated with this and only half-expects this to happen. However, he is also extremely media savvy and clearly understands that Western public opinion is distressed at "not doing enough" about Russia's aggression, especially as the war is progressing to a Grozny/Aleppo style of brutally leveling cities.

The fact that our leaders have no choice but to "meekly refuse to help" could be very helpful leverage to pressure Western countries to get more sanctions going against Russia as well as more lethal help.

Certainly while the unexpectedly dismal effectiveness of the Russian army is entirely due to Ukrainians' willingness to fight against overwhelming odds, the volume and severity of sanctions, boycotts and lethal aid against Russia - including from habitual foot-draggers like Germany - already far outweigh what anyone could have expected a month ago and may very well tip the balance in the long term. Maintaining the pressure on the West to keep up, and expand those sanctions is likely a key concern to Zelensky.

p.s. Previous no-fly zones, in Iraq and Yugoslavia, involved active shooting from NATO aircraft. There is no way around it unless the targeted nation submits from the onset.

p.p.s. No-fly zones aren't going to be enforced only by NATO surface to air missiles not located in Ukraine either. Even if that was technically possible, which I highly, highly, doubt (especially in a context where Russian planes being interdicted are flying low-level ground attack runs), that would just be inviting disaster like shooting down Russian medevac helicopters or the like. Additionally, it would only invite Russian to retaliate against units on NATO territory, not Ukraine, making this an even more daft policy. Last, Kiyv, the closest main fighting area is about 350km from Romania, the closest NATO country, while Odessa's area, closer to South Eastern Romania is still a considerable distance away (150k?) and sees no current fighting. Those are not within easy SAM ranges.

p.p.p.s As @llama points out, suppressing threatening Russian SAM batteries would be especially fraught for those based on Russian territory rather than in Ukraine itself.

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    In some cases, a no-fly zone could also be monitored, but not enforced. This eg happened in Yugoslavia, where violations of the no-fly zone weren't acted on for 6 months (though that might not be a practical approach for the current situation).
    – tim
    Mar 5, 2022 at 17:51
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    A no-fly zone that is not enforced isn't an actual no-fly zone in any meaningful practical sense. And, note how the Yugoslav mission ended up hot anyway. Mar 5, 2022 at 19:04
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    Enforcing a no-fly zone using missiles based outside Ukraine can't work. Patriot launchers firing the MIM-104D have a range of less than 160 km, barely enough to cover Lviv if fired from Poland, or Odessa if fired from Romania. The SM-6 (330 km) could cover most of western Ukraine, but not Kyiv. However, 1) it's ship-launched, not ground-launched, and 2) Russia has more airplanes than the US has SM-6s.
    – Mark
    Mar 5, 2022 at 22:59
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    Might be worth adding that some of those Russian SAM launchers are going to be on the Russian side of the previously accepted border, so it would also almost certainly involve killing Russian troops on Russian soil, which is pretty reasonably considered to be an act of war
    – llama
    Mar 5, 2022 at 23:57
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    @Valorum, Russia has a five-to-one advantage in numbers, a ten-to-one advantage in spending, and has better equipment across the board. Ukraine is flat, open country, and the only major defensive terrain, the Dnieper River, was bypassed by Russia's attacking through Belarus. By all rights, Russia should have steamrolled Ukraine rather than having almost every advance stall after a few days.
    – Mark
    Mar 6, 2022 at 22:02
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That is exactly the point. There are a number of requests and suggestions which come down to let's have a war between the West and Russia, so Ukraine doesn't stand alone. They include

  • immediate NATO membership,
  • immediate EU membership,
  • NATO air forces over Ukraine to enforce a no-fly zone,
  • NATO air defense forces in Ukraine to enforce a no-fly zone,
  • NATO ground forces in Ukraine to protect people.

An enforced no-fly zone would make NATO either part of the war, or part of an international peace-enforcement mission. Without UNSC approval, there won't be an international peace-enforcement mission, and Russia would view it as a war, anyway. So the proposal comes down to a war between the NATO members and Russia. An entirely understandable request from Ukraine, who are in the war, but countries not yet at war with a major nuclear power might hesitate a bit. There is also the question if Putin would be more or less ready to nuke Paris, London, Berlin, or Washington rather than Kiev. If only because of the way the fallout travels.

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    Absolutely. There seems to be a lot of people who either don’t know what a no-fly zone is or who pretend not to.
    – divibisan
    Mar 5, 2022 at 16:50
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    You’re last sentence doesn’t make sense, though. Nuking a nuclear power is going to bring much more serious consequences than a bit of wind-blown fallout. Putin may be crazy, but there’s no way anyone could come to that conclusion
    – divibisan
    Mar 5, 2022 at 16:52
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    @divibisan, Putin said approximately that he might use nuclear weapons if a third party intervenes. And my point is that we're talking about a major escalation. If Russian and NATO planes shoot at each other, how can it end without Russia escalating to nuclear weapons?
    – o.m.
    Mar 5, 2022 at 16:55
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    "how can it end without Russia escalating to nuclear weapons?" With Putin retreating from Ukraine. Mar 5, 2022 at 17:50
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    @Arno so someone like Zelensky? Because he's Jewish and a native Russian speaker...
    – Stephen S
    Mar 6, 2022 at 1:31
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Setting up a no-fly is a non-starter unless the balance of power is very asymmetrical. The following conditions must be met:

  • We can operate safely from airfields or carriers with impunity, the enemy has limited or no capabilities to strike the bases from which we operate.
  • Obtaining air superiority is easy to achieve, the enemy has limited anti-aircraft capability that our air force can easily suppress. The enemy's air force poses little threat to us.

When these two conditions are satisfied, we can impose a no-fly zone over the objections of an enemy with impunity. The enemy cannot operate their SAM systems as these would be destroyed, the enemy cannot fly their planes as these will be shot down.

In the case where a no-fly zone was imposed in the past, e.g. over Iraq, we started out with a situation close to this. Some limited military action like taking out SAM systems using cruise missiles was needed to pave the way for the no-fly zone.

In case of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we're too far off from the conditions needed to get to a no-fly zone. Not only are Russia's SAM systems far more advanced than anything Western forces imposing a no-fly zone have had to deal with before, Russia also has a very robust capability of striking any point on Earth with pinpoint accuracy using ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. Taking out this capability would require a military defeat of Russia in a direct war, making the reasons for setting up a no-fly zone, moot.

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