Documents to download

The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has called on western countries to establish a no-fly zone to prevent Russian bombardment of his country and protect Ukrainian people. The UK, US and NATO have so far ruled one out, because they say it would bring them into direct conflict, and potentially war, with Russia.

This paper describes what a no-fly zone is, their legal basis, enforcement issues, the debate over establishing one in Ukraine, and previous examples of their use.

What is a no-fly zone?

A no-fly zone (NFZ) is commonly used to describe an area of airspace where certain aircraft are not allowed to fly. In a military context, enforcing a NFZ means denying the use of airspace to other aircraft. This involves surveillance aircraft, to monitor the airspace, and combat aircraft to deter and, if necessary, shoot down any aircraft violating the NFZ. It may also require destroying or disabling any ground-based air defence systems to protect enforcing aircraft.

The restrictions that the UK, US, and European states have imposed on Russian commercial aircraft are not no-fly zones because many other aircraft are freely able to navigate within these airspaces, and the airspaces remain open to the majority of aircraft. Instead, these are restrictions, on the ability of aircraft to enter a state’s airspace.

What is the legal basis?

A no-fly zone could have a legal basis where:

  • It was authorised by the United Nations Security Council.
  • Established on the principle of individual or collective self-defence, in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter.
  • Established with the consent of the state whose airspace the no-fly zone is in.

Some no-fly zones have a disputed legal basis, especially where they were established without UN Security Council approval. In these cases, countries imposing the NFZ have cited humanitarian concerns.

When have they been used before?

NFZs have been implemented on three occasions: Iraq (following the 1991 Gulf War), Bosnia (1992) and Libya (2011). MPs have also discussed the merits of establishing such a zone on other occasions, including during Syria’s civil war (2011 onwards) and in Darfur, Sudan, in 2007-08.

Why is Zelenskyy calling for a no-fly zone?

Put simply, to protect Ukrainian civilians. He says without a NFZ “we simply cannot manage.” After NATO foreign ministers refused to implement a NFZ at their meeting on 4 March, Zelenskyy accused the leadership of the Alliance of giving “a green light for further bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages.” 

Why are the UK, US and NATO opposed?

The UK and US Governments say establishing a NFZ in Ukraine differs to previous occasions because it risks direct conflict, and potentially a war, with Russia, a nuclear-armed state. Russia’s air defences and air capabilities are far more sophisticated than those of Libya and Iraq, meaning the risk to enforcing aircraft is a major consideration.

There is also the question of effectiveness, given that a NFZ would not prevent Russian ground forces from operating, nor prevent Russian ground or sea launched missiles from reaching their targets.

However, others argue inaction risks a humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine. Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, also believes that not confronting Russia risks further conflict: “Putin will not stop until he is stopped.”

Documents to download

Related posts