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A Ukrainian No-fly Zone is Unequivocally a Recipe for World War III

by Colonel Jim Waurishuk, USAF (Ret.)

March 12, 2022

So, suddenly, there’s a new idea for a Ukraine no-fly zone. Suddenly Joe Biden wants one, and 42 Republican members of the U.S. House agree with him. And of course, there the plethora of the ‘never ending wars’ neocon subject matter experts claiming six-ways to Sunday justifications for a no-fly zone. Be it emotional, hysterical, agenda-driven they have flooded the airwaves demanding that a no-fly zone is necessary. Let provide the “real why” it doesn’t work and why it won’t work any better than any option offered. Remember, we are dealing with Russia. And sorry to disappoint you, but I am sorry to say -- even a “limited” no-fly zone is a bad idea.

Since the beginning of Russia’s war on Ukraine, calls for a NATO-imposed no-fly zone over Ukraine have been hampered by one big problem. That problem is that implementing and enforcing a no-fly zone would no doubt likely result in the shooting at Russian aircraft and carry the significant risk of directly leading to a nuclear exchange. This argument until earlier this week carried the day in the White House, which has repeatedly ruled out a no-fly zone, or any other direct intervention in the war. However, things are different Congress, to include both houses, as well as including the warmongering Neocon Establishment Republicans. And as the war grinds on and casualties pile up, calls for a no-fly zone have grown, including a number of influential circles on both sides of the aisle.

The basic idea would be to deploy NATO assets to prevent Russian combat jets and helicopters from flying over certain parts of Ukraine to allow for refugee evacuation and the provision of humanitarian aid. Calls for a limited no-fly zone suffer from the same basic problem as a broader campaign: You can’t implement one without greatly heightening the risk of nuclear escalation.

There are really only two reasons (for proposing this): They have no idea what they’re talking about or they’re posturing. Moreover, there is no kind of no-fly zone — limited or otherwise — that would address the humanitarian crisis motivating such calls. Russia’s primary method of bombarding civilian-populated areas in this war has been artillery, not aircraft — which means that a Western intervention focused on shooting down planes would either prove ineffective or else escalate to something even more dangerous.

Nevertheless, the calls for a no-fly zone keep coming anyway: relics from prior wars waged under unquestionable American supremacy, unburdened by the prospect of great-power war and nuclear escalation.

Before I explain what a limited no-fly zone is, let me explain what it is not. In no way does it remain “limited.” There’s really no such thing. Period.

So, what exactly is a no-fly zone? No-fly zones are a commitment to patrol, combat patrol – that’s aggressive, because, if necessary, it means shooting down military aircraft that fly in the declared “no-fly zone” area, which was claimed for the purpose of protecting civilians.

In Ukraine, which would mean the U.S. and its NATO allies sending in combat jets to patrol Ukraine’s skies — and being willing to shoot down any Russian aircraft, combat aircraft that enter into the designated protected airspace. Since Russian aircraft are in fact directly and deliberately flying combat missions in Ukraine and show no signs of stopping, any no-fly zone puts us on a direct path to a shooting war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

However, to the proponents of “Limited no-fly zones” the “limited” aspect, are nothing but a notional claim and narrative that are supposed to be a way around this problem. They believe that by only operating in certain areas of Ukraine, they in theory believe this limits the risk that the U.S. and NATO would need to fire on Russian aircraft to enforce their mandate can be contained, maintained and controlled without any escalation whatsoever.

To this end, they argue that the U.S. and its allies should only commit to protecting “humanitarian corridors” — defined by slices of Ukrainian territory that Moscow and Kiev have designated as routes for civilian evacuation and aid provision. Of course, history notes that such humanitarian corridors were employed in the Syrian civil war but were frequently violated by Syria and its Russian allies; just this past week, Ukraine has already accused Russian forces of attacking designated humanitarian areas in the current conflict. Also, understand we are not talking about a limited conflict area, Syria where Moscow had limited deployed forces, we are dealing with Russia directly which borders and neighbors Ukraine.

At the same time, the proponents for a no-fly zone, limited or not, argue that a NATO commitment to protect those corridors would not lead to direct fighting with Russia, but would effectively deter the Russians from attacking them again. There is definitely a degree of fantasy at play in their logic and a significant degree of denial. They in fact noted in a letter this week that; “What we seek is the deployment of American and NATO aircraft not in search of confrontation with Russia, but to avert and deter Russian bombardment that would result in massive loss of Ukrainian lives.”

Unfortunately, there are some dire problems with this logic. First, it inflates the deterrent power of a no-fly zone. The assumption that Russia would be deterred from attacking these areas by a NATO presence flies in the face of past experience. Looking to past history, understand, after NATO imposed an operational no-fly zone over Bosnia in 1993, its jets had to shoot down Bosnian Serb aircraft that flew into the protected airspace. It is hard to imagine that President Putin’s Russia is significantly more afraid of confronting NATO than the vastly inferior Bosnian Serb forces. Let me note here that I will discuss, the historical precedence of the success and failures of no-fly zones, later in this article.

Secondly, setting aside shootdowns of Russian planes, securing even a “limited” no-fly zone would likely require NATO to go on offense. There are complicated and complex factors at play. Realize, it is not just dealing with Russian combat aircraft. It is also dealing with deployed mobile Russian air defense and anti-aircraft batteries in Belarus and from inside Russia’s sovereign border that have enough range to cover the entirety of Ukrainian airspace. Unless NATO pilots wanted to fly with the constant fear of being shot down, they would need to take those air defense sights and positions out. Obviously, attacking Russian territory, like shooting down their aircraft, is of course, an “act of war” on Russia.

Third, a no-fly zone would in fact do relatively little to protect Ukrainian civilians. One of the more striking features of the Ukraine conflict to date has been the surprisingly limited role of Russia’s air force, which has flown only questionably effective missions in Ukrainian airspace, mainly against military and high priority government targets. While Russia has bombarded civilian-populated areas, it has primarily done so using ground-based artillery rather than airstrikes. A no-fly zone might not even solve the crisis of Ukrainian civilians being pummeled by Russian ground forces. Again, all of these factors cast doubt on the desirability of any no-fly zone, limited or not.

Further, let me point out that if the mission stays restricted to simply denying Russia’s ability to fly in Ukrainian air space, it would almost certainly guarantee clashes with Russian aircraft and air defenses without even stopping the killing of civilians. Moreover, what could follow from that would be risky “mission creep” … remember that term? It applies, in No-Fly Zone operations – in fact, it’s open ended exclusively. We all know how that seems to come into play with the globalist neocons at the helm. Certainly, the continued mass deaths could create significant pressure on the U.S. and NATO to target Russian artillery and ground forces, similar to the way that a 2011 limited no-fly zone in Libya swiftly escalated to a regime-change killing field operation that ultimately toppled Muammar Qaddafi’s government, as Hillary Clinton claimed, “... we came, we saw, he died …” and then came Benghazi.

Here's the facts folks. There is, in short, no such thing as a “limited” no-fly zone in Ukraine. Either NATO is using its forces to deny airspace to Russian jets, or it is not. And if the U.S. and its allies engage in such a mission, the logic of the mission inevitably militates toward war with Russia -- with all of the risks of nuclear escalation that entails.

So, if even a limited no-fly zone is obviously dangerous, why are some leading experts and members of Congress, both the House and Senate entertaining it? For one, there’s no denying that the situation in Ukraine is horrible. The suffering on the ground and the appeals for intervention from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who just desperately wants NATO to help protect his country from a Russian invasion -- have struck a chord with the politicos and their lap dog pundits and talking heads and the so-called subject matter experts.

However, the no-fly zone’s appeal in Washington is grounded in a particular post-Cold War instinct. There are the two groups of a number of American foreign policy thinkers in DC who suffer from a mentality where they are afflicted with a mindset developed in the post-Cold War where they advocate policies feasible against weak adversaries, they have ignored China and of course Russia as preeminent superpowers. In fact, they have become drunk on power after the fall of Russia in the Cold War. They have moved in a director and of a belief convinced that the U.S. could and should intervene in faraway conflicts to protect civilians and enforce its vision of global order. This led to campaigns shaped by liberal interventionism and the war on terror, such as the missions to stop mass killings in Kosovo, toppling Saddam Hussein, and Afghanistan.

They have postulated the kind of wars that have preoccupied America for most of the post-Cold War period, introducing policies like air policing and no-fly zone, which in their minds made a certain kind of sense. Given the relatively rudimentary air forces and defenses of America’s opponents we’ve dealt with over the last 30-years -- it was not difficult for U.S. airpower to seize control over the skies with few major risks. The question was not whether the United States could accomplish this goal, but whether it should. Of course, lets realize what’s at stake for the out-of-control Globalist neocons, it’s really all about a “color-revolution and subsequent regime change in Moscow” – we know that! Its just one critical element of the total war against the Russian people in hope they rise-up against and takedown Putin.

That said, when faced with a nuclear-armed major power, be it a rising China or even a militarily inferior Russia, unfortunately, the low-cost logic behind a no-fly zone doesn’t apply. The military ignorant Mitt Romney’s of the world have no concept of what is really at stake … that American aircraft would have to contend with serious air defenses; let alone realizing that regime change operations run a major risk of triggering nuclear annihilation.

With the “could” question largely foreclosed for these reasons; the “should” question no longer even comes into play. Yet Americans afflicted with the current humanitarian save the children mindset do not recognize this reality. They are still operating in a world of ‘shoulds’, rather than ‘coulds,’ one where the United States really can “do something” in the major conflicts of the day without risking unacceptable consequences. This is not a question of morality versus interests, as foreign policy choices are so frequently framed. There is no coherent moral view in which it would be better to stop Russian jets from bombing Kiev while significantly raising the risk of a nuclear war.