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Andreas Umland: Why no-fly zones over Ukraine are necessary

August 15, 2023 6:48 PM 7 min read
A woman holds a banner during a protest against Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine in Krakow, Poland, on Nov. 27, 2022. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has increasing repercussions beyond Eastern Europe – political, economic, social, legal, and humanitarian. Against this background, it is worth revisiting the full-scale war’s earliest and most urgent Ukrainian request for direct Western military support.

Shortly after the start of Russia’s massive invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, Kyiv launched an international campaign asking to provide Ukraine’s entire territory with a no-fly zone.

While empathizing with Ukrainian fears, NATO and its member countries quickly rejected Kyiv’s proposal as too risky a step. Even partially satisfying the Ukrainian demand by, for instance, declaring certain parts of Ukraine’s western hinterland as no-fly zones was not seen as being in NATO member states’ national interests.

This schematic reasoning was already questionable in 2022. It has become increasingly dubious in 2023.

Active military engagement over Ukraine’s rear with fighter planes and anti-aircraft weaponry by Western and other interested countries would not only satisfy a Ukrainian cry for help. Russia’s war against the Ukrainian state, economy, and population also touches, in many instances, core national interests of nations outside Eastern Europe.

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The security concerns of Ukraine and many other countries align in at least four ways, and thus demand direct action from non-Ukrainian actors:

First, Ukraine’s continued ability to harvest and export foodstuff and especially grain is not only closely linked to worrisome humanitarian questions. It is also a condition necessary for the preservation of worldwide stability and order.

A shortage of and new rise in prices for basic nutrition products such as flour and bread will have grave transcontinental social and political repercussions. They may include unstable governments, armed upheavals, migration flows, the rise of xenophobia, and even civil or inter-state wars.

The use of Western and non-Western air and anti-aircraft power to help Ukraine secure its food production and export is thus not only a question of charity for Ukrainians. Such direct employment of NATO and non-NATO military might would be sufficiently justified by the need to minimize generic risks for international security.

Preventing hunger and its destructive aftereffects on the global order is, by itself, enough ground to consider creating no-fly zones over and around Ukraine. Such measures could be justified without even mentioning the Ukrainian request for them, and with exclusive reference to non-Ukrainian national and broader transnational concerns.

Second, Ukraine’s nuclear power plants (NPPs) – including the defunct Chornobyl NPP with the sarcophagus covering its broken atomic reactor – have, since the start of the full-scale invasion, become repeatedly sites, theaters, targets, and instruments of Russian military activity.

The transborder risks emanating from such behavior for the health not only of millions of Ukrainians but also of citizens of several NATO member states are obvious. When Ukraine asked for a no-fly zone in 2022, it was surprising that the high national interest of various European countries in the safety of Ukraine’s radioactive material remained under the radar screen.

It is now high time for NATO and its governments to become directly engaged in protecting their citizens from a repetition of the fallout from the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. As with the enablement of stable Ukrainian food production and transportation, Ukraine’s interest in protecting its NPPs can even be seen as secondary. Here too, Kyiv’s request for a no-fly zone does not have to be mentioned in a vindication of military engagement of NATO and other allies in Ukraine’s airspace.

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Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent. In the words of U.S. President Joe Biden, on Feb. 24, 2022, Russia launched a genocidal war against Ukraine “to wipe out

Third, the city of Kyiv has become a favorite target of Russian missile and drone attacks (as I offline witnessed numerous times). Russian rockets and UAVs have repeatedly hit purely civilian infrastructure and killed non-combatants. Frequently, houses are damaged or Kyivans are wounded by falling debris from intercepted Russian missiles and drones as well as from Ukrainian anti-aircraft ammunition.

Kyiv is the home of dozens of foreign embassies and consulates, as well as of offices of numerous Western and non-Western governmental and non-governmental organizations. Oddly, the security of hundreds if not thousands of NATO and non-NATO countries’ citizens in Kyiv depends entirely on the Ukrainian Iron Dome over the capital, and the city’s numerous shelters.

Many diplomats and other governmental officials permanently or temporarily located in Kyiv represent countries with advanced air and anti-aircraft forces. Yet, these posted or seconded officials as well as other foreign taxpayers can so far neither on their way to nor within Kyiv count on their own countries’ capable militaries to protect them. This is despite the Ukrainian government’s expressive request to do so.

Last but not least, the Ukrainian recovery and rebuilding campaign is starting. It involves more and more Western and non-Western foreign investment and presence throughout the country. Billions of euros and dollars of taxpayer money will be put toward the demining, repair, and reconstruction of Ukraine. This will increase the national interest of many Western and some non-Western countries in basic security in Ukraine.

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If Russia’s terror campaign in Ukraine, with long-range missiles and drones, continues, the question of securing internationally financed civilian infrastructure from attacks will become increasingly salient. Western governments and citizens may wonder what will happen to the various projects they finance. Will they have a sustainable effect or sooner or later be neutralized by Russian terror attacks?

Private direct investment is also set to become a factor in helping Ukraine’s economy revive. It is, in spite of complicated insurance issues, seen by many Western officials as a major determinant of Ukraine’s future revival. Especially in the case of large office or factory buildings erected or renovated by or with the help of foreign companies, there will be the question of their protection from Russian air raids. The governments of various countries where the headquarters of companies investing in Ukraine and their insurers are located will get under pressure to help the Ukrainian government to make these investments secure.

Many observers see an implementation of Western-supported no-fly zones even over Ukraine’s hinterland as a straight road to World War III. However, it is doubtful that such an escalation will indeed happen as long as Western troops do not become involved in front-line combat. Russia has not been using any manned fighter planes for its intrusions into the airspace of Ukraine’s rear. The Russian terror attacks on cities and smaller settlements in the Ukrainian hinterland are exclusively done with various types of missiles and drones.

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Both Kyiv and the West want a full and stable truce with Moscow – sooner rather than later. Why and how Ukrainian national interest currently contradicts a ceasefire with Russia is clear: Kyiv’s problem in negotiating with Moscow is that an agreement with the Kremlin now will not lead to

If Western fighter planes and anti-aircraft rockets or bullets hit Russian flying objects, they would not kill Russian soldiers. Note in this context, that, in 2015, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian fighter plane over Syria, as a result of which one of the plane’s pilots was killed. Russia responded to this action by a NATO member state with temporary economic sanctions against Turkey. Putin soon restored full and rather friendly relations with Erdogan – as if nothing had happened.

New discussions of Ukraine’s old request for a no-fly zone are necessary. These domestic and multilateral debates need to weigh the costs, gains, and risks of implementing one or another permutation of Kyiv’s original idea. Ukrainian territories and objects of high relevance for NATO or EU member states as well as for other nations need to be identified.

A full, rational, and unemotional assessment of the new situation in 2023 should clarify which Western and other countries’ concerns are at stake, and what will be won and lost with the establishment of no-fly zones. On this basis, either an organization like NATO, or a coalition of the willing, should act. It should declare select parts of Ukraine’s territory as critical to their members’ security and implement, in agreement with the Ukrainian government, no-fly zones over them.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

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