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From what I understand, the major argument against establishing a no-fly zone is that it requires attacks beyond Ukraine's borders. The first step in establishing a no-fly zone is to knock out AA defences on the ground. Since many of those defences are likely to be located within Russia's borders, it means bombs and missiles hitting Russian soil - something that's not politically possible yet.

But what are the arguments against a partial no-fly zone? By partial, I'm thinking something like western Ukraine delineated by Dnieper river. That way all the SEAD sorties would strike Kherson plus I'm guessing a 100km buffer on the other side of Dnieper. This area we're talking about is definitely not Russian soil by any stretch of the imagination. Not even Russia claims that Kherson is Russian soil - yet. Why not act now before it becomes de-facto Russian soil?

Doing this would accomplish the following:

  • Send a clear message regarding support for Ukraine's sovereignty
  • Free up Ukrainian AA and air force from duties in western Ukraine to be made available in the east
  • Help unblock Odessa's port
  • Air tankers for Ukrainian jets
  • Better AWACS intel by getting closer to the front line
  • Introduce a layer of deniability regarding what air assets are flown by Ukrainians and which assets are flown by allies. (Plausible deniability for limited strikes that are required to hit Russian soil)
  • Waste Russian SAMs by forcing them to shoot long range with low hit probabilities while revealing their positions for Ukrainian attacks up close.
  • Alleviate some of the worries about Belorussian re-invasion from the north
  • Destroy Russian war assets including AA equipped ships (all that don't get out of the way), SAM systems and aircraft.
  • Provide air cover for Ukrainian army to take back Kherson
  • Setup a controlled framework for pushing east in a systematic manner where there are very fewer surprises for Russia and clear understanding for citizens of allied countries.
  • When no-fly is a success, this will lay groundwork for a for setting up a limited no-go zone on the ground (ex make Kyiv a no-go zone on the ground) to protect against re-invasion.

If the counter argument is that Dnieper is still way too far east. And/or that 100 km buffer is not enough to project jets from long range SAMs, what about the same idea but even further west? Or committing only unmanned drones close to this demarcation line while keeping piloted jets out east. Even then, the exception could be low level attacks with A-10's, Apaches and such.

Back to the question. Why is it all or nothing rather than some type of a customized implementation that fits the current needs? The extreme version of this question is "why not have a no-fly zone only directly above Lviv?" While tactically insignificant, even that little gesture would be a complete win on strategic and political level. It's because even if Russia takes 90% of Ukraine, it can never hope to have whatever corner happens to be covered by a no-fly zone. Lack of hope is a powerful weapon.

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    It's not a question of all or nothing in regards to territory and it has little to do with attacking Russian soil (that's only a concern when Ukrainian forces attack Russia). It has to do with avoiding the potential for any NATO-on-Russia direct combat. WW3 and nukes and all that. No NATO combat troops should be in Ukraine, period. 50 years of Cold War taught us this: don't put 2 nuclear powers in direct conflict. Now, within those parameters NATO can do all sorts of other stuff, including ignoring all of Putin's nuclear bluster. Jun 28 at 16:41
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    No, you don't understand. Any time you have a Russia - NATO units trading shots you risk starting out an escalation chain. First limited conventional, then less limited conventional, then limited nukes, then full on nukes. So, no, no putting NATO jets where they shoot at Russian ones or get shot at by Russian ones. End of story. I am not downvoting but really we all went through the no-fly zone arguments 3 months ago. Here, but also in the general media. It's just a terrible idea and so are any direct combat roles for NATO on Ukrainian territory (including wheat convoy escorts). Jun 28 at 16:47
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Did the Cold War teach us that two nuclear powers shouldn't be in direct conflict? The PRC and USSR were both nuclear powers and fought directly in 1969, without the conflict escalating to nuclear weapons. Depending on what you mean by "direct", Soviet and American forces also engaged during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, without any nuclear escalation. After the Cold War, the Kargil War is another example where two nuclear states limited themselves to conventional war. A fight between nuclear states seems a bad idea, but it isn't really history that teaches this. Jun 28 at 17:59
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: yes, no contact is the best strategy, but China and the USSR were both nuclear armed and they fought conventional border skirmishes. As did India and Pakistan. It's not that I'm wishing NATO and Russia start exchanging conventional artillery duels, but there is a tendency on this site and in some part of the press to overstate things in re nuclear weapons coming into play right away. However, it is basically unanswerable how things would turn out between NATO and Russia until we get there. So the Q is prolly too speculative.
    – Fizz
    Jun 28 at 19:23
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4 Answers 4

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Any no-fly zone over Ukraine, even a partial one, is unlikely, because it will result in direct confrontation of NATO and Russia. Since both parties have nuclear weapons, this raises the risk of a global nuclear war, and a possible destruction of civilization.

REFERENCES:

That is also why an NFZ is so breathtakingly dangerous, with the potential to raise the risks of nuclear war. An NFZ needs to be enforced by military means, putting US and NATO pilots in the position of shooting down Russian aircraft and killing some of their personnel, both in the air and on the ground. There is another problem: Russia’s long-range air defenses reach well into Ukraine from Russia and Belarus, so effective enforcement of a full or even partial NFZ would almost certainly require bombing Russian territory.

Calling it a “limited” or “humanitarian” NFZ in no way limits the risks. It still amounts to a declaration of war against Russia. A “humanitarian” NFZ may “not seek direct confrontation with Russian forces,” but Putin would hold all the escalatory cards in this scenario.

A no-fly zone over Ukraine? The case against NATO doing it. By Kelly A. Grieco, March 18, 2022: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/a-no-fly-zone-over-ukraine-the-case-against-nato-doing-it/


Despite these calls, U.S. President Joe Biden and his advisors have consistently rejected the idea of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine. They argue that the policy would lead to direct combat between U.S. and Russian forces and risk uncontrollable escalation—the “exact step that we want to avoid,” as White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on March 3. Last Friday, Biden underscored this view. “We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III, something we must strive to prevent,” he said.

International relations (IR) experts overwhelmingly agree with Biden. The Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute asked IR scholars at U.S. universities and colleges for their views on the use of U.S. air power to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The results reported below are based on responses from 866 respondents surveyed between March 10 and 14. (Complete results can be found here.)

These experts are nearly unanimous in their opposition to the establishment and enforcement of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Respondents reject a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone because they fear it raises the risk of escalation, including the likelihood of a Russian nuclear attack against Ukraine or NATO countries.

Expert poll results

Poll: Experts Oppose No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine. IR scholars overwhelmingly say involving U.S. air power risks uncontrollable escalation. Biden and his advisors agree. By Irene Entringer Garcia Blanes, Ryan Powers, Susan Peterson, and Michael J. Tierney. March 16, 2022: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/03/16/poll-no-fly-zone-ukraine-zelensky-speech-biden/

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  • Your graph doesn't address the question. The graph shows 7.08% support for imposing a no-fly zone above Ukraine. What would be the political will to do the same thing for western Ukraine? What would it be for just a small uncontested sliver of Ukraine? Jun 28 at 17:31
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    @user3280964: According to Putin's February 2022 speech, Ukraine as a whole is contested, so there is no such thing as uncontested sliver of Ukraine. Putin proved it by air strikes against most of Ukraine, from the East to the West (very close to the Western border of Ukraine, in fact). What's more, since then, various MPs of the Russian Duma (Parliament) have mentioned annexing the Baltic countries as well! Jun 28 at 17:38
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    A no-fly zone also does nothing to unblock the port. As experts have noted repeatedly, no company is going to insure cargo vessels sailing through contested and potentially mine-filled waters. Jun 28 at 19:06
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The problem with the no-fly zone is not just that it might require strikes on Russian soil. Just as importantly, it would require strikes by the enforcing powers against the Russian armed forces. That is commonly understood to mean WAR wherever it happens1, while providing weapons without the crews is understood to mean NOT WAR. A war between nuclear powers is a very bad idea.

The US or NATO have all necessary legal justifications for going to war against Russia, since they would be helping Ukraine in collective self-defense. (That doesn't require prior treaties.)

1 Unless both sides agree to treat it as an unfortunate accident, and not as an act of war.


As a personal note, I have sympathy for people who are grasping at possible solutions to stop the attacks on civilians. But, please, don't deceive yourself about steps that will mean WAR. Starting one in a half-hearted way would be just about the worst thing the US and NATO can do.

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A partial no-fly zone:

  • solves very few actual problems
  • risks nuclear confrontation
    • is only marginally less escalatory than a full no-fly zone
  • reinforces Putin's narrative that it's the West-vs-Russia, not Russia-vs-Ukraine

Let's start out with the first.

What does it achieve, exactly?

Currently there are 4 main ongoing problems:

  • Russia is aggressing Ukraine. A partial no-fly zone doesn't automatically stop that. At most it "sends a message".

  • Russia is grinding through Ukrainian forces near Severodonetsk. This is being done with artillery, mostly. The Russian air force is more active than before, but is not key. And, it isn't in this proposed no-fly area anyway.

  • Russia's war is blocking grain shipments out of Odessa, which is causing slow-motion humanitarian catastrophe. This doesn't solve it.

  • Russia is conducting atrocities against civilians. With artillery strikes near Kharkiv, missile strikes near Kiev. Bucha is quite likely being redone elsewhere. This doesn't solve it.

Nuclear confrontation risks.

(I defer to the first answer as to why it is a risk and why experts, not just pundits like me, think it is a bad idea). But let's address the historical counter argument that "it's been done before, and it worked out".

Yes, we've had "nuclear-state-on-nuclear-state skirmishes" before.

  • Pakistan and India fought a minor war. So what? Very bad idea. Had they gone to nuke each other, that would have been a horrible. However, their arsenals do not present an existential risk to the human race.

  • China and USSR, in 1969. Again, so what? China had very few nukes - their first test was 5 years before - and couldn't have done much had it come to nukes. Bad idea, no existential risk.

  • Cuban Missile Crisis. 1962. Now we're talking. An equally hare-brained idea as the previous 2, which did almost get to a nuclear war. And this would have been the big one, even if Russia had nowhere the nukes it has today. If you play Russian roulette often enough, you will get unlucky. So claiming that it's alright because you hit an empty chamber is a rather unconvincing argument.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, cited as an example why "it's not so bad", both the US and USSR recognized the risks and resolved not to put their forces into direct combat contact. That was the correct position 50 years ago, it is now.

The first 2 had limited casualties, and took place in essentially empty territory. The 3rd had no casualties. A longer, much more bitter, round of fighting, like we've been seeing in Ukraine, makes it less likely that cooler heads will prevail if things start to escalate.

The risk of nuclear escalation is low, certainly. But they need to be weighed against the downsides if it does happen, which are catastrophic.

Strengthen's Putin's narrative

Since the invasion's initial troubles Putin has been shifting his narrative to recast the war as a struggle of NATO-vs-Russia rather than just Ukraine-vs-Russia. Poor Russia has no choice but to defend itself:

  • things aren't going well, not because of Putin's incompetence, but because of NATO's involvement.
  • sacrifices by the Russian people are necessary because their country is at risk. Ukraine may not make a great bogeyman, NATO sure as heck does.

Involving NATO combat troops directly plays right into his hands. Within Western countries any "near misses" related to no fly zones will certainly strengthen the arguments of the appeasers for pushing Ukraine into a ceasefire.

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    "recognized the risks and resolved not to put their forces into direct contact". YMMV depending what you mean by that exactly. The Russians have argued some not so distant B-52 flights were a provocation. They also claim to have forced a US sub to surface/withdraw recently in Kuriles etc. This is to say nothing of the UK-Russia incidents, which I suppose don't count by your standard since the UK nuclear arsenal can't end the world.
    – Fizz
    Jun 29 at 1:30
  • I accepted this answer, especially because of the points about "Strengten's Putin's narrative". The other thing that this answer brings into focus is that a partial no-fly zone would also weaken west's narrative of "Russia is so weak, and our weapon systems are so strong that we are able to hold them back without sending our own military". Once NATO air-force shows up, there will be an expectations of immediate result. When those results don't show up (because no-fly zone is partial) it will not be good. The only way out will be escalation. And I agree, we don't want that. Jun 29 at 15:57
  • @Fizz UK-Russia incidents, which I suppose..., the UK is part of NATO so that would draw in 7-8k warheads, by my standards. And, are you really trying to make a point by comparing interceptions and turn-backs, which were an ongoing feature of the Cold War, and even beyond, to a mission where NATO planes are expected to have to shoot at Russian ones? Who cares what Russians have argued? That turning back a B52 is big deal? Did you read the last 2 years reports of NATO intercepts of Russian planes? Russian subs near Sweden? That's all part of the game. No-fly zones are not. Jun 29 at 17:31
  • The thing is there is no referee here. If Russians now say this or that is unacceptable to them... there is indeed the possibility they might be bluffing... or not. They "went along" with NATO expansion, even on their borders (Baltics). Until they [really] didn't (Georgia) etc. By "went along" I mean they did protest, but no more than that.
    – Fizz
    Jun 29 at 21:04
  • And to argue that no escalation is possible sans contact is also pretty short-sighted. The US is already giving Ukraine a ton of intelligence. Now they are going to send them more long range precision weapons. Putin has already warned against that. I'm not trying to give his propaganda any easy lines, but one can phrase their perspective as: the US provides the intelligence, the US provides the missiles, all the Ukrainians have to do is "push the button".
    – Fizz
    Jun 29 at 21:17
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Because the American government does not wish to impose a no-fly zone of any sort at the present time, and NATO members that might wish to establish an NFZ do not believe they have the capability to do so and also uphold their other military commitments.

Of course, you might (reasonably) protest that the above answer doesn't really answer anything and just invites the question "Why doesn't the American government wish to impose an NFZ?". It is questionable how on-topic the internal motivations of the US government are for this site, but nevertheless we can think of several reasons why they might choose to act this way:

  • As has been alluded to on many occasions, they fear that a more direct confrontation between American and Russian forces could result in a damaging escalation of the conflict, possibly culminating in a full-scale nuclear war.
  • American politicians and military commanders do not wish to risk their personnel and materiel in a war that does not pose a direct existential threat to the United States. This would be a significant change in the dominant US foreign policy, but there has long been a faction advocating this view in American society.
  • The US government wishes to "keep its powder dry" and avoid getting entangled in Eastern Europe, anticipating an even more serious conflict. The obvious antagonist in this conflict is China, which the American government seems to regard as its most significant rival.
  • Politicians feel that the US public now has such a hostile attitude to overseas military expeditions (a modern analogue of Vietnam Syndrome), that committing forces to such an expedition would greatly weaken their party.
  • They believe that Ukrainian forces can successfully repulse the Russian invasion without such an NFZ and that doing so without direct American military assistance would be beneficial, from a morale and propaganda perspective.
  • It is possible that they perceive a "meat grinder" involving Russian forces in Eastern Europe to be to their advantage in some respect, and so are unwilling to pursue a course of action which may bring the war to a swift conclusion.
  • American military commanders are concerned that they lack the capability to impose an NFZ and have advised government decision makers of this.

I've tried to summarise some "obvious" motivations above, but the list is not intended to be exhaustive and nor should every suggestion be considered likely.

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