Debate over Ukraine no-fly zone heats up

A growing number of U.S. lawmakers and officials in Ukraine are pleading for the Biden administration and its allies to establish a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace to help ward off Russian attacks. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have said that a no-fly zone is a key request they have of allies since the Russian invasion began in earnest roughly two weeks ago. Proponents believe a no-fly zone would cut off Russian air support, blunt the advance of Russian troops toward Kyiv and save the lives of innocent Ukrainians. 

But Biden administration officials have been consistent and clear that a no-fly zone is off the table, citing the potential for dangerous ripple effects. 

“The reason why that has not been a step the president has been willing to take or we have been interested in taking is because a no-fly zone requires implementation,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday. “It would require, essentially, the U.S. military shooting down Russian planes and prompting a potential direct war with Russia, the exact step that we want to avoid.” 

Biden have also pointed to the military equipment and “defensive assistance” they’ve given Ukraine to arm them against Russia.  

But calls for a no-fly zone have only grown in the wake of a Thursday attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility in Ukraine. 

“This is a good moment to renew my call for a no fly zone, at the invitation of the Ukraine government. I fear if this continues, we will have to intervene in a bigger way,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a pilot in the Air National Guard, tweeted after the attack on the nuclear plant. 

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told HuffPost this week a no-fly zone should be “seriously considered.” 

No-fly zones are used to prohibit enemy aircraft from flying in a certain region and carrying out attacks on populations. 

The tactic has been used several times in the post-Cold War era, most notably in Iraq during the 1990s to prevent attacks on Kurdish populations in the northern part of the country and Shiite Muslims in the southern part of the country. 

But American and NATO officials have been clear that the idea is not being considered because it could easily escalate into a wider war. 

“The only way to implement a no-fly zone is to send NATO fighter planes into Ukrainian airspace, and then impose that no-fly zone by shooting down Russian planes,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said. “We understand the desperation, but we also believe that if we did that, we would end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe.” 

Doug Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, says no-fly zone has become a “buzzword,” adding those who support the move want the U.S. to help Ukraine, but don’t understand the complexity of what goes into enforcing a zone. 

“They think it’s a low-risk option to do something that [has] some general effect that they notionally think is good, they like it, but the actual intricacies of it, they’re a little thin on that,” he said. 

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he doesn’t think a no-fly zone is currently necessary, adding that Washington’s primary mission in the conflict is providing military aid to Ukraine.  

He told The Hill, however, that the option for a no-fly zone shouldn’t be taken off the table.  

“So far, we’ve been able to do that. But if there was ever a problem that developed with that for some reason, I just think we ought to at least have that as a potential option,” he continued. 

There are different options for no-fly zones, Panetta said, noting that it would take a lot more effort to enforce a country-wide no-fly zone than a limited zone meant strictly for airlifts.  

“I just think it’s important to, to kind of protect all your options,” he said. “And even though they’ve gone on the record, I suspect that there have to be some people that are still giving some thought to a more limited approach if it is required.”  

Retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, former Defense Attaché to Russia, says a no-fly zone in the current environment could negatively impact Ukraine because it has benefitted from its use of drones and aircraft. 

Ryan did suggest, however, that the U.S. and NATO could establish a no-fly zone over the western part of the country where Russian troops haven’t arrived.   

“That might be something that you could do that would avoid the risk of direct confrontation with the Russians because they’re not really flying there,” he said. “And it would provide a protection that Ukraine wouldn’t see as an impingement on its use of drones and aircraft in the fight that’s happening in the eastern part of the country.” 

But opponents of the zone largely take the Biden administration’s stance — that implementing such a zone brings the U.S. closer to armed conflict.  

No-fly zones haven’t been imposed against “peer adversaries” in the past, Birkey said, meaning the U.S. imposes these restrictions when it can take on the risk of enforcing them. . 

However, enforcing a no-fly zone intended to stop Russian troops would be different, as the risk of escalation is greater due to the threat of nuclear force.  

“Against a peer adversary like Russia [with] nuclear weapons in play, it’s going to be far more complex and a lot more risk that it could escalate in pretty ugly ways,” Birkey said. 

Tags Adam Kinzinger Jen Psaki Joe Biden NATO No-fly zone Nuclear weapons Roger Wicker Russia-Ukraine invasion Vladimir Putin
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