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Volume IconWhat is a no-fly zone? Why is its Ukraine implementation fraught with risk?

Ukraine has been pleading with the West to enforce a no-fly zone over the country. But the West fears that its implementation may escalate the war. What exactly is a no-fly zone? Let's find out

ImageBhaswar Kumar New Delhi
Rafale, two Jaguar and two Mig29 aircraft fly over Rajpath in Eklavya formation during the 72nd Republic Day Parade

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy virtually addressed the United States Congress last week and asked the US to enforce a no-fly zone over his country. He has made similar such requests since the beginning of the Russian invasion, only to be turned down every time.

Zelenskyy has also slammed NATO for not implementing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. NATO countries, on their part, have warned that such a move could spark a widespread war in Europe with Russia, which is a nuclear power. So, what exactly is a no-fly zone, and why is it risky to implement one over Ukraine? Let's find out.

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“Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people. Russian troops have already fired nearly 1,000 missiles at Ukraine, countless bombs. They use drones to kill us with precision. This is a terror Europe has not seen for 80 years,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to United States Congress.

First, let us understand why Ukraine wants the US and NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over its skies. Its President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that Russian forces have turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands. According to Zelenskyy, Russia has fired nearly a 1,000 missiles and dropped countless bombs in Ukraine.

The purpose of the no-fly zone is to protect the civilians of a country or region  from attacks conducted by combat aircraft.

Another purpose could be to prevent one of the combatant countries from achieving air superiority, which means control of the sky over the battlefield.

They have also been used in attempts to limit an ongoing conflict to just fighting on the ground. Put simply, a no-fly zone is established when one or more parties prohibits either all or certain types of aircraft from flying through a designated airspace, over a country or region. And, such a zone requires that the parties concerned be willing to enforce it.

Effective enforcement of a no-fly zone requires threat of military action if the target country violates the zone and sends aircraft of the prohibited type into this area.

Put simply, if the US declares a no-fly zone over Ukraine, specifically prohibiting Russian aircraft from entering the designated airspace, then the US will have to be ready and able to shoot down any Russian aircraft violating the space.

American or NATO combat aircraft shooting down Russian aircraft could spark a wider conflict between the two sides, which might lead to an escalating military conflict between nuclear-armed adversaries.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has also said that if any country tries to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, such an action will be seen as participation in an armed conflict against Russia by that country.

No-fly zones have been implemented on several occasions. From 1991 to 2003, the US, Britain and France had enforced no-fly zones over Iraq to protect Shia populations and minority Kurds from air attacks by Saddam Hussein’s government. From 1993 to 1995, NATO enforced a UN-declared no-fly zone over Bosnia. In 2011, NATO again enforced a UN-approved no-fly zone over Libya during the civil war in that country.

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First Published: Mar 22 2022 | 8:45 AM IST

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