If you’ve been online over the last few days, you’ve likely seen the messages: calls across social media for a no-fly zone in Ukraine from users posting support and solidarity against Russia‘s invasion.
The calls come from Ukrainian leaders, too, in both the political and civil society spheres, urging NATO countries to impose and enforce a ban on Russian jets flying in Ukrainian skies. It would be a move akin to those seen during conflicts in Iraq, Libya and Bosnia — with one nuclear missile-sized exception.
The aggressor in Ukraine is Russia.
“The Taliban did not have an air force like this. Libya didn’t. The Serbs didn’t. This is a totally different scale of opponent,” said David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, referencing recent conflicts involving Canadians — the latter two of which utilized no-fly zones.
“The Russians, whatever difficulties they’ve experienced at this point, have an awful lot of military capability in a conventional sense, and then they have multiple weapons of mass destruction — not just the several thousand nuclear warheads.
“They possess chemical, biological agents and have demonstrated in recent years a willingness to use it. That should cause, I think, all of us to be somewhat cautious here.”
Defence Minister Anita Anand added in a press conference on Tuesday that a no-fly zone is “not on the table” right now because it would mark “a severe escalation” by NATO in an already tense situation.
Information spreads fast in a crisis, especially online. But it doesn’t always show the full picture, or give the context people need to understand the issues at hand.
So what are we talking about when we discuss no-fly zones?
What is a no-fly zone?
On the surface, a no-fly zone might seem like a simple concept: it is an area of space declared off-limits by one party to aircraft belonging to another party.
The airspace around Parliament Hill, for example, is a no-fly zone, as many areas around the country are no-fly zones specifically for drones.
In the context of Ukraine, a no-fly zone would require the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance to agree on and designate a zone where Russian aircraft would be barred from flying.
But like so many issues, key challenges emerge around the question of enforcement.
In order to impose a no-fly zone, the parties declaring it have to be able and willing to enforce it — in other words, shoot down aircraft that violate the grounding order.
“To be clear, that means that you’d be effectively going to war with anybody else who is looking to fly airplanes that you don’t want to take off and get into the air,” said Perry.
For example, NATO aircraft shot down four Bosnian-Serb aircraft that violated the no-fly zone in 1994.
Dani Belo, a PhD candidate and fellow at Carleton University’s Norman Patterson School of International Affairs, said the risks if that happened with Russian aircraft now could be catastrophic.
“Keeping that conflict short of a nuclear confrontation would be very difficult,” he said.
“The key difference is the nuclear aspect of all of this.”
What are the other options?
The spectre of a nuclear war haunts every step that western nations make in the current crisis.
Repeatedly, Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised the threat of nuclear strikes in warnings to the West, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged on Monday that G7 and NATO leaders have discussed concerns about the potential of Putin acting on that threat.
“We had a direct discussion about this among allies this morning,” Trudeau said on Monday.
“We are firm and determined to continue to stand strong together in defence of democracies. We will not look to provoke, we will not look to escalate. But we will stand in defence of freedoms that Canadians and Americans and Europeans and people around the world have fought to preserve.”
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Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, also urged leaders not to be deterred by Russia’s threats during testimony at the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.
He called Putin’s words “tactics” designed to get the West to “back off.”
The Russian president put that country’s nuclear forces on high alert on Sunday, after threatening on Thursday — the day Russia invaded Ukraine — that any intervention by the West would lead to consequences the “likes of which they have never seen.”
U.S. President Joe Biden has ruled out sending American troops into Ukraine, pointing specifically to the risk of starting a third world war, while NATO has so far opted to send its response force into neighbouring areas rather than Ukraine, which is not a member.
It is that prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine that Putin has cast as a threat to Russia, and he has demanded assurances from leaders that Ukraine will not be permitted to join.
One of NATO’s founding principles is Article 5, or the principle of collective defence, meaning an attack against one member is an attack against all, and will spark a joint response.
While Ukrainian leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have sought both NATO membership and a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine, the latter in particular likely comes with the realization it is unlikely to happen.
“He is no doubt aware this is a long shot, but perhaps NATO turning down a no-fly zone will lead them to consider other ways in which they can increase their help to Ukraine, short of direct military involvement,” explained Stéfanie von Hlatky, director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University.
'Prove that you are with us'
Zelenskyy upped the pressure on European leaders this week, urging them to grant membership for Ukraine in the European Union. While not a military pact, the 27-member bloc is a powerful political and economic force, as well as a clear show of the direction that Ukrainians want for their future.
“We are fighting to be equal members of Europe,” Zelenskyy said in Ukrainian in a speech translated into English by an interpreter who spoke through tears.
“Do prove that you are with us. Do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you are indeed Europeans, and then life will win over death and light will win over darkness,” he said.
“The EU will be much stronger with us.”
While Russia’s initial advance through Ukraine has been slower than many expected, Perry said the numbers are still on Russia’s side for it to continue to seize more territory.
The question then becomes, what happens next?
“I think what will happen as Russia makes an advance into Ukrainian territory and is trying to use that as a lever in negotiations. I think what will ultimately be negotiated is Ukraine becoming a member of the European Union, but not becoming a hub for NATO forces,” Belo said.
Finland and Sweden, for example, are not in NATO but are members of the European Union.
It remains unclear though, what would happen to the territory seized by Russia — would Putin attempt to force broad swathes of the sovereign democracy under his control despite fierce political and military resistance, or withdraw, potentially with an attempt to annex the eastern areas of Donetsk and Luhansk?
Perry said the potential “off-ramp” for Russia needs to be clearer.
“Short of having the Ukrainians prevail in this situation, which I think is going to be pretty difficult, hopefully there’s some thinking being done about a potential way to get the Russians to acknowledge that they’ve made a mistake.”
— with a file from Reuters.